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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures as he delivers a speech during a ceremony to honor Brazilian military athletes who went to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Navy Sports Headquarters in Rio de Janeiro on September 1, 2021. (Photo: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)

Draft Report Accuses Bolsonaro of Crimes Against Humanity for Covid-19 Recklessness

"Many of these deaths were preventable," said one Brazilian senator. "I am personally convinced that he is responsible for escalating the slaughter."

Kenny Stancil

A Brazilian congressional probe of President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic attributes more than 300,000 deaths—half of the nation's coronavirus death toll—to the far-right leader's policies, and although its initial recommendation to charge him with mass homicide and genocide has been jettisoned, the draft report still accuses him of crimes against humanity.

The 1,000-plus page document, the product of a six-month investigation led by a special Covid-19 Senate committee, asserts that Bolsonaro "intentionally let the coronavirus rip through the country and kill hundreds of thousands in a failed bid to achieve herd immunity and revive Latin America's largest economy," the New York Times reported Tuesday.

According to the newspaper:

The panel initially recommended in the report that Mr. Bolsonaro be charged with mass homicide and genocide against Indigenous groups in the Amazon, where the virus decimated populations for months after hospitals there ran out of oxygen. But less than a day after the Times and several Brazilian news outlets reported on those plans, several senators said that the accusations had gone too far.

Late Tuesday, on the eve of the scheduled release of the report, the committee removed the recommended charges of homicide and genocide, Renan Calheiros, the centrist Brazilian senator who was the lead author of the report, said just after midnight on Wednesday local time.

Nevertheless, "the draft report accuses Brazil's far-right leader of a total of 11 crimes, including crimes against humanity, incitement to crime, and charlatanism, for his 'obstinate' promotion of ineffective remedies such as the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine," The Guardian reported. "But perhaps the most serious allegation is that Bolsonaro's shunning of offers from vaccine manufacturers during the first year of Brazil's epidemic amounted to murder."

From the report:

In spite of all the vaccines that were on offer, the federal government opted not to buy them, a decision that went against all of the scientific studies which demonstrated their safety and effectiveness, and against the advice of all of the epidemiologists who declared on a daily basis that only vaccines would save lives.

The decision not to acquire vaccines between the months of July 2020 and at least January 2021, which lacked any technical or scientific basis, and flew in the face of recommendations from international health authorities, ended up claiming the lives of thousands of Brazilians who would undoubtedly have made use of such vaccines.

In addition to shunning vaccines and promoting false solutions, Bolsonaro—who has downplayed the seriousness of the virus since the outbreak began, dismissing it as "little flu"—also rejected basic public health precautions, and instead discouraged mask-wearing and encouraged large gatherings.

Amid mounting anger from citizens over Bolsonaro's reckless disregard for the severity of the pandemic, the senate panel "held more than 50 hearings and often led the nightly news broadcasts," the Times noted. "They became must-see television in Brazil, featuring testimony about bribery schemes and disinformation operations."

The committee is not scheduled to vote on the draft until next week, which means that it could still be revised by senators. Of the 11 members on the panel, seven are opponents of Bolsonaro, who entered office in 2019.

However, even if the commission greenlights the report, experts say that it is unlikely it would lead to criminal charges. That's because Brazil's lower chamber in Congress, which must approve the report, is dominated by right-wing supporters of the president, while the country's attorney general, a Bolsonaro appointee and ally, would be responsible for prosecuting him.

Still, "the draft text paints a devastating portrait of the neglect, incompetence, and anti-scientific denialism many believe has defined the Bolsonaro administration's response to a public health emergency that has killed more than 600,000 Brazilians," The Guardian noted.

Brazil's Covid-19 death toll is second only to the United States, where nearly 720,000 have died from the disease, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization.

Journalist Carl Gibson argued that if the damning allegations against Bolsonaro are true, then the same can be said about former U.S. President Donald Trump, "whose administration pursued the same 'herd immunity' approach to Covid."

The Guardian reported that "many experts believe the congressional inquiry has done severe and lasting political damage to the standing of a politician who plans to seek re-election next year but whose ratings have plunged to record lows."

Calheiros, one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the 81-member Senate, told the Times that "many of these deaths were preventable. I am personally convinced that he is responsible for escalating the slaughter."

The Times explained next steps:

Mr. Calheiros said that if the attorney general did not pursue charges against the president, the senate committee would seek other potential legal avenues, including in Brazil's Supreme Court and the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

If Mr. Bolsonaro is formally charged, he will be suspended from office for 180 days while the Supreme Court decides the case, said Irapuã Santana, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. If convicted, he would be blocked from the presidency for eight years and likely face years in prison.

If Bolsonaro does manage to run for another term, polls indicate that he would lose the October 2022 race to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a popular leftist who improved the living standards of the country's working class when he led the country from 2003 to 2010.

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