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Will Brazil’s prosecutor general kill Bolsonaro’s probe?

and . May 24, 2020
Brazil's Prosecutor General Augusto Aras has operated more like the president's counsel than a true prosecutor. Brazil's Prosecutor General Augusto Aras (left) and President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: José Cruz/ABr

Since Friday evening, Brazil’s news cycle has revolved around the video recording of an April 22 meeting held by President Jair Bolsonaro and his cabinet. It was an explicit depiction of a far-right, illiberal administration for everyone to see. As the country faces the worst pandemic of the century — which might very well evolve into a humanitarian crisis — the president’s biggest worry was if the Feds would pull “shenanigans” against his family and friends. The video is a key piece of evidence in the probe into whether Mr. Bolsonaro illegally interfered with the Federal Police — that is, changing its leadership in order to tamper with investigations. 

While many argue that most of the evidence so far discovered is only circumstantial, the abundance of said evidence makes the president’s defense a tough sell. And yet, Mr. Bolsonaro might very well escape from all this unscathed, at least from a legal perspective.

The reason is Prosecutor General Augusto Aras.

</p> <p>In matters of common crimes allegedly committed by the president, it is up to the prosecutor general to preside over a probe —&nbsp;and decide on whether to present charges. If he does, then the House will vote on the president&#8217;s indictment, which would automatically suspend him from office for six months. The vice president would take over, and the head of state can only resume his functions if found not guilty.</p> <p>Based on Mr. Aras track record as Brazil&#8217;s top prosecutor, there is little room to imagine him recommending the indictment of the man who, just eight months ago, picked him for the job.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Prosecutor general: a &#8216;Queen&#8217; for King Bolsonaro</h2> <p>Mr. Aras was selected to serve a two-year term as prosecutor general in September 2019 — after bending over backward to get in the president&#8217;s good books. Despite his leftist background, the electoral law expert transformed into a hardcore conservative — defending that landowners should have the right to kill farm invaders, calling same-sex marriage &#8220;unnatural,&#8221; and hinting that environmental laws are an obstacle to economic development. Textbook&nbsp;Bolsonaro rhetoric.&nbsp;</p> <p>The question many prosecutors asked was if the sycophancy would just be a ruse in order to get the job — or if it would be Mr. Aras&#8217; ethos as a prosecutor general.</p> <p>The president was never coy about what kind of man he wanted for the job. Just days before Augusto Aras&#8217; name was announced, Mr. Bolsonaro compared the prosecutor general&#8217;s strategic role within his administration to a <a href="https://www.correiobraziliense.com.br/app/noticia/politica/2019/09/03/interna_politica,780586/bolsonaro-pgr-tera-valor-de-uma-dama-no-tabuleiro-de-xadrez-do-gove.shtml">queen in the game of chess</a>. &#8220;Who are the pawns? The ministers. A little further back, [then-Justice Minister Sergio] Moro is a tower. [Economy Minister] Paulo Guedes is the knight. And who&#8217;d be the queen? Which authority? The queen is the prosecutor general, o.k.? The message has been delivered,&#8221; said Mr. Bolsonaro —&nbsp;adding that he was the king on the board.</p> <p>So far, with few outlying moments, Mr. Aras has <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2020/03/11/prosecutor-general-cozies-government-truckers-strike/">met the president&#8217;s expectations</a> — especially in regards to the investigation about whether he tried to meddle in the Feds’ probe. The case started a month ago, when former judge Sergio Moro resigned from the Justice Ministry, claiming the president wanted to change the Federal Police Chief in order to name someone that would give him confidential information on high-profile cases.</p> <p>Mr. Aras&#8217; request for an investigation was not limited to the president&#8217;s conduct —&nbsp;but also in regards to possible defamation committed by Mr. Moro. A legal expert who tries cases in the Supreme Court (who asked to remain anonymous) called the move &#8220;completely not aligned with normal legal procedure.&#8221; Libel charges are only looked into <em>after</em> a denunciation is proven false.&nbsp;</p> <p>Moreover, the prosecutor echoed the government&#8217;s attempts to prevent the video recording of the meeting from becoming public. Mr. Aras requested access to the evidence to be limited —&nbsp;a strange move by a prosecutor —, writing to the Supreme Court that the case could “set the stage for the 2022 presidential race.” His legal statement was <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/05/15/bolsonaro-i-wont-wait-for-the-feds-to-f-over-my-family/">more favorable to the president</a> than the one presented by the Solicitor General.</p> <h2>The evidence against the president</h2> <p>During the April 22 cabinet meeting, the president indicated on several moments his intentions to interfere with the Federal Police. &#8220;Our information services are a shame, a shame! I&#8217;m not informed! And I can&#8217;t work like this. It&#8217;s difficult. That&#8217;s why I will interfere!,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>One line in particular, which had been partially leaked already, suggests decidedly self-interested motives for his meddling with the Feds.</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>“I’ve tried to change people from our security in Rio and, officially, I couldn’t. That’s over. I won’t wait for them to f*** over my entire family with shenanigans, or a friend of mine, because I can’t pull someone from security who belongs to the structure and is at the end of the line. That will change. If it doesn’t, then his boss will change. If [I] can’t change his boss, then the minister will change. Period. We’re not playing games here …”</em></p></blockquote> <p>On Saturday, newspaper <em>O Estado de S.Paulo</em> brought more corroborating evidence —&nbsp;a message exchange prior to the now-infamous cabinet meeting, in which the president informed Mr. Moro he would remove the Federal Police chief.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <script>(function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];if(d.getElementById(id))return;js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src='https://embed.ex.co/sdk.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}(document,'script','playbuzz-sdk'));</script><div class="playbuzz" data-id="7ae7dd9c-e2e5-4233-8909-10c8ad3e5809" data-show-share="false" data-show-info="false"></div> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Legal experts disagree on how damning the evidence is. &#8220;The intent to satisfy his personal interests is clear. But the mere expression of intent is not a crime in itself when it comes to Brazilian legislation,&#8221; says penal law expert André Damiani.</p> <p>To help you understand the affair, we have broken the case down, chronologically. It is the best way to understand what we know (and don&#8217;t know) so far.</p> <ol><li>The president was disgruntled with the Federal Police as they did not provide him with intelligence reports (they are not supposed to), nor did it protect his son Flávio, a senator, from a state-level money-laundering investigation (the Feds are legally prohibited from shielding him —&nbsp;and the probe is outside of their jurisdiction).</li><li>The disgruntlement grew stronger as the <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2019/12/19/bolsonaro-trouble-son-flavio-investigation/">investigation</a> into Senator Flávio Bolsonaro advanced.</li><li>Late in 2019, President Bolsonaro tried to name a new Federal Police Chief and a new Rio de Janeiro Superintendent. He backed down due to the resistance of the Justice Minister.</li><li>In January, the president told cabinet members he felt &#8220;persecuted.&#8221;</li><li>Late in March, the president told Mr. Moro, via a text message: &#8220;You already have 27 superintendencies. I only need one [Rio&#8217;s].&#8221;</li><li>On April 22, Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out during the cabinet meeting.</li><li>Two days later, he informed Mr. Moro he was firing the Federal Police Chief — leading to Mr. Moro&#8217;s resignation. The new chief would be detective Alexandre Ramagem, a friend of his sons.</li><li>The Supreme Court blocked Mr. Ramagem&#8217;s appointment, due to his proximity to the Bolsonaros. Then, President Jair Bolsonaro named Rolando Alexandre for the job — personally vetted by Mr. Ramagem.</li></ol> <p>While there is no proverbial smoking gun, there is a body of evidence stronger than in many other successful cases against other politicians. The question is: will this be enough for the prosecutor general?

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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