Bolsonaro Testifies as Police Close In on His Inner Circle

(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro testified to federal authorities Tuesday as part an investigation into falsified vaccination records, the latest in a series of probes bearing down on the former president and his inner circle.

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Bolsonaro has faced mounting legal troubles since his October election defeat, and has now appeared before Brazil’s Federal Police three times since his March return home from an extended vacation in the US.

During his testimony, the right-wing former leader denied any involvement in what police have described as a plot to produce fake Covid-19 vaccination documents for international travel purposes, according to local news reports. The case led to the arrest of one of Bolsonaro’s top aides earlier this month, and the ensuing legal storm may suggest that Judge Alexandre de Moraes, the Supreme Court justice overseeing several of the probes, is moving closer to Bolsonaro’s banishment from public office or even his arrest.

“Moraes is closing in on Bolsonaro,” said Mario Braga, a Sao Paulo-based political analyst for Control Risks, a consulting firm. “And he will likely have a lot of elements to chase.”

The 68-year-old former army captain met with investigators in early April over allegations that he failed to declare millions of dollars worth of gifts he received while serving as president. Later that month, he gave testimony in response to accusations that he played a role in inciting the Jan. 8 riots that that ransacked major government buildings in the nation’s capital, Brasilia.

Read more: Bolsonaro Denies Wrongdoing After Police Raid in Covid Probe

Bolsonaro, who never explicitly conceded his defeat to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, denies wrongdoing on all fronts. Neither Bolsonaro’s spokesman nor his attorney immediately responded to requests for comment about Tuesday’s testimony, which lasted almost three hours, according to the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

The testimony followed a multi-state police raid earlier this month that included the search of Bolsonaro’s home in Brasilia and the arrest of Lt. Col. Mauro Cid, who acted as Bolsonaro’s personal secretary during his presidency. Police alleged that data had been falsified to produce vaccine cards that would comply with US entry requirements.

Bolsonaro, a vocal immunization skeptic, told reporters after the search that he had not been vaccinated and had not tampered with official data to show otherwise.

“I didn’t take the vaccine, period. I never denied that,” he said.

The legal peril facing the former president is largely the result of a broad investigation, overseen by Moraes, into online threats and attacks against Brazilian institutions. The probe commonly known as the Fake News Inquiry was launched in 2019 to combat disinformation. Bolsonaro and many of his allies became a central focus after they sought to sow doubt about Covid-19, vaccines and the 2022 election results.

Read more: Bolsonaro’s Brawl With a Top Justice Tests Brazil’s Democracy

Moraes, 54, is also the head of Brazil’s top electoral court. His efforts to crack down on vitriol flooding the internet and defend Brazil’s institutions initially won widespread praise. But they have also generated concerns about judicial overreach, and his attempt to connect the fake news inquiry and ongoing probe into vaccine cards has drawn criticism that he is seeking to concentrate power.

“Moraes is not just using the powers that had already been shaped in the Bolsonaro era, but is deploying them in expansive ways,” said Diego Arguelhes, a constitutional law professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.

Last week, Moraes ordered investigations into executives from Google and Telegram over their roles in an “abusive campaign” to turn public opinion against proposed legislation to regulate internet content. Tech companies claim the bill tramples free speech and imposes unrealistic requirements on them to police disinformation.

Moraes still has many defenders among Bolsonaro critics who see the former leader and the proliferation of misinformation as threats to Brazil’s democracy. A slim majority of Brazilians, meanwhile, believe Bolsonaro should be ruled ineligible to run for office in the future because of the cases against him, according to an April poll from Datafolha.

(Recasts lede and adds details on latest testimony)

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