BRASILIA – Brazilian senators met into Tuesday night discussing a report that will recommend President Jair Bolsonaro be indicted on criminal charges for allegedly bungling the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and pushing the country's death toll to second-highest in the world.
The latest draft of the report arising from a Senate committee's investigation, a copy of which was reviewed by The Associated Press, recommends the president be indicted on 11 charges, from charlatanism and inciting crime all the way up to homicide and genocide.
In the committee's so-called “G7” group of senators who aren't from Bolsonaro's base, three opposed inclusion of homicide and genocide charges, said five committee members who agreed to discuss details of the sensitive talks only if not quoted by name. The three were trying to persuade their four peers to join in opposing the two charges, the senators said.
Whether they remain or not, analysts said it was unclear such recommendations would lead to charges against the president.
Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing, and repeatedly accused the investigation of being a political instrument aimed at sabotaging him.
Critics have denounced Bolsonaro for insistently downplaying the coronavirus' severity, ignoring international health guidelines on masks and restrictions on activity designed to prevent the virus' spread, touting unproven treatments and delaying acquisition of vaccines.
Anger over the president's stance prompted creation of the Senate committee in April, which has investigated allegations that Bolsonaro’s management of the pandemic caused many of Brazil's more than 600,000 deaths from COVID-19.
The draft report of nearly 1,200 pages was written by Sen. Renan Calheiros, who was scheduled to present his much-anticipated final version Wednesday to the 11-person committee.
The document has to be approved by the committee before being sent to the office of the prosecutor-general, a Bolsonaro appointee who would decide whether to carry forward the investigation and perhaps pursue charges. In Brazil, members of congressional committees can investigate, but don't have the power to indict.
Regardless of the exact content of the report's final version or whether the prosecutor-general moves forward, its allegations are expected to fuel criticism of the far-right leader, whose approval ratings have slumped ahead of his 2022 reelection campaign.
“The major impact of the investigation is political, because it generated tons of news that certainly will be used by campaign strategists next year,” said Thiago de Aragão, director of strategy at political consultancy Arko Advice.
In its current shape, the draft report concludes that the government “deliberately exposed the population to a concrete risk of mass infection," influenced by a group of unofficial advisers who advocated for pursuing herd immunity even after many experts said that wasn't a viable option.
Even during the worst throes of the pandemic, Bolsonaro steadfastly opposed social distancing measures, claiming the poor would suffer worse hardship if the economy ground to a halt. He continues to argue that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19, though scientists have dismissed it as ineffective.
Throughout six months of investigation, senators have obtained thousands of documents and taken testimony from over 60 people.
“This committee collected evidence that abundantly demonstrated that the federal government was silent and chose to act in a non-technical and reckless manner," the draft report reads.
A particularly thorny issue has been Sen. Calheiros' insistence on including a recommendation that the International Criminal Court investigate Bolsonaro for possible genocide of Indigenous peoples, said the senators who spoke with AP. This has angered committee members, including critics of the government, who say genocide is an exaggeration that could threaten the entire report's credibility, they said.
While there is less opposition among senators to recommending indictment for homicide, they have similar concerns about doing so, the senators said.
“The prosecutor-general’s office will look with a magnifying glass for errors, failures and inconsistencies in order to wash their hands of it,” said political analyst Carlos Melo, who teaches at Insper University in Sao Paulo. “If you have 10 accusations that are very strong, and one that has inconsistencies, that’s what the government will latch on to, to try and discredit the whole report.”
In addition to Bolsonaro, the draft report recommends charges for dozens of allies and current and former members of his administration. The three senators opposed to recommending homicide and genocide charges for Bolsonaro also reject indicting Bolsonaro’s lawmaker son, Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro, senators said.
Senators on the committee have also been wary of calling for charges against members of the military.