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Brazil’s prosecutor general: unbiased professional, or Bolsonaro’s lackey?

. Sep 24, 2020
Prosecutor General Augusto Aras President Bolsonaro and Prosecutor General Augusto Aras. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Handpicked by President Jair Bolsonaro last September, Brazil’s Prosecutor General Augusto Aras is about to complete a full year in office. Initially depicted as the president’s strawman, Mr. Aras used his inauguration speech to reinforce his “unwavering commitment to [fighting] corruption,” while stressing that the Federal Prosecution Service he now oversees must be “pledged to the true spirit of the Constitution.”

His stint as prosecutor general has so far been littered with controversy, with questionable decisions that have led to internal and external criticism. Mr. Aras’s vow against corruption has been called into doubt, thanks to his series of attacks against Operation Car Wash — the largest anti-corruption investigation in Brazil’s history.

</p> <p>Indeed, several of his decisions have raised a question mark over his actual dedication to the fight against corruption, and whether he is simply in the role of prosecutor general to act as President Bolsonaro&#8217;s lackey.</p> <p>Just last week, Augusto Aras made at least three statements in favor of the Bolsonaro family. On Thursday, he told the Supreme Court that Senator Flávio Bolsonaro should be given the right to jurisdictional prerogative in the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/12/corruption-case-against-jair-bolsonaro-son-fabricio-queiroz/">corruption case</a> currently brewing in Rio de Janeiro.</p> <p>When the events that make up the inquiry took place, Flávio Bolsonaro was a member of Rio state congress, meaning that — by the letter of the law — the president&#8217;s oldest son should not be granted any parliamentary jurisdictional benefits.</p> <p>Mr. Aras also shelved a request to place President Bolsonaro under investigation for threatening a reporter from newspaper O Globo — Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to &#8220;punch [his] face in&#8221; — claiming the president enjoyed immunity.</p> <p>He also ruled in favor of Mr. Bolsonaro in stating the president&#8217;s verified social media accounts should not be considered &#8220;official,&#8221; giving the head of state the right to block users as he sees fit. This statement came in a case <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/05/20/the-lawyers-who-could-put-the-bolsonaro-family-in-hot-water/">pending before the Supreme Court</a>, filed by a lawyer who was blocked by the president on Twitter.</p> <h2>Suing President Bolsonaro</h2> <p>The major litmus test of Mr. Aras&#8217;s time in office concerns a complaint issued by former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who directly accused President Bolsonaro of undue interference in the Federal Police. <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> spoke with several sources within the Prosecutor General&#8217;s Office, Planalto Palace, Supreme Court, and the General Counsel for the Federal Government — the general feeling is that Augusto Aras will nix Mr. Moro&#8217;s plea and save the president from investigation.</p> <p>Before this, one of the most controversial decisions of the prosecutor general&#8217;s time in office also concerns Sergio Moro. Prior to examining whether Mr. Moro&#8217;s accusations are based in fact, Mr. Aras named the former Justice Minister as a suspect for alleged malfeasance.&nbsp;</p> <p>One source from within the Prosecutor General&#8217;s Office called Augusto Aras&#8217;s attitude towards Mr. Moro in the investigation as &#8220;subtle, but uncommon,&#8221; saying that it works in Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s favor.</p> <p>Indeed, the president&#8217;s allies are prepared to submit appeals in the case and are wary of celebrating prematurely. &#8220;In legal matters, you never know what&#8217;s around the corner,&#8221; said one of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s interlocutors. However, all are in agreement about the &#8220;signals [Mr.] Aras is making.&#8221;</p> <h2>Constitutional Catch 22</h2> <p>Michael Mohallem, a law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, says that the appointment of the Federal Prosecutor General is one of the weak links left by the Brazilian Constitution when it comes to the autonomy of the prosecution service. &#8220;The institutional framework does not favor independent stances from the [Prosecutor General] as the president is not forced to choose a candidate from the three-person list of suggestions [prepared by prosecutors],&#8221; he explains.</p> <p>&#8220;It&#8217;s not unconstitutional, but it weakens the situation, as it allows any person who is close and aligned with the president to be given the job. It&#8217;s one thing to evaluate technical requirements, it&#8217;s another to evaluate preferences. One of the central responsibilities of the Prosecutor General is to carry out oversight on the Executive branch. If he/she is aligned [with the government], that&#8217;s a flaw.&#8221;</p> <p>When appointing Augusto Aras as Prosecutor General, Jair Bolsonaro turned his back on a tradition in place since 2003, by which the president would choose the new head of the prosecution service in accordance with a three-person list of nominees selected by professionals in the field. Over the last 17 years, only President Michel Temer <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/08/08/fight-brazil-prosecutor-general-job/">selected the second-name on this list</a> — Mr. Aras&#8217;s predecessor, Raquel Dodge. On all other occasions, Brazil&#8217;s presidents have chosen the prosecutor with the most votes among their peers.&nbsp;</p> <p>Augusto Aras wasn&#8217;t even on the list presented to Mr. Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Beyond simply having been handpicked by the president, suspicions around the prosecutor general&#8217;s credibility are increased by subtle hints from Jair Bolsonaro that Mr. Aras could be in the running for a seat on the Supreme Court. Two justices will retire before the end of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s term and the chance of a spot on the country&#8217;s highest court could be making Augusto Aras toe the government line.</p> <p>This issue is repeated to exhaustion among legal scholars and Mr. Aras&#8217;s peers. &#8220;Even if the prosecutor general has a neutral legal view, without bias, the doubt and mistrust around his actions weigh heavily against the image of his office. It&#8217;s not enough to have integrity, in this case, it is important that society perceives him as someone who works without political bias,&#8221; stresses Mr. Mohallem.</p> <p>The law professor points out another problem with the constitutional rules regarding the role of prosecutor general: the possibility of being granted a further term after two years. &#8220;If someone does the job independently, if they file complaints against the president, cabinet ministers — in other words, if they do their job properly — there is a chance that the president will not want to give the prosecutor another term, inhibiting their work.&#8221;

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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