Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro indicted for allegedly falsifying COVID-19 vaccination status

Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was formally accused Tuesday of falsifying his COVID-19 vaccination status, marking the first indictment for the embattled far-right leader, with more allegations potentially in store.

The federal police indictment released by the Supreme Court alleged that Bolsonaro and 16 others inserted false information into a public health database to make it appear as though the then-president, his 12-year-old daughter and several others in his circle had received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Police detective Fábio Alvarez Shor, who signed the indictment, said in his report that Bolsonaro and his aides changed their vaccination records in order to “issue their respective [vaccination] certificates and use them to cheat current health restrictions.”

“The investigation found several false insertions between November 2021 and December 2022, and also many actions of using fraudulent documents,” Shor added.

The detective said in the indictment that Bolsonaro’s aide-de-camp, Mauro Cid, told investigators the former president asked him to insert the false data into the system for both himself and his adolescent daughter.

Cid also said he delivered the vaccination certificates to Bolsonaro personally.

During the pandemic, Bolsonaro was one of the few world leaders who railed against the vaccine. He openly flouted health restrictions and encouraged other Brazilians to follow his example.

His administration ignored several offers from pharmaceutical company Pfizer to sell Brazil tens of millions of shots in 2020, and he openly criticized a move by São Paulo state’s governor to buy vaccines from Chinese company Sinovac when no other doses were available.

Brazil’s prosecutor-general’s office will have the final say on whether to use the indictment to file charges against Bolsonaro at the Supreme Court.

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Multiple investigations into Bolsonaro

The case stems from one of several investigations targeting Bolsonaro, who governed from 2019 to 2022.

Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Fábio Wajngarten, called his client’s indictment “absurd” and said he did not have access to it.

“When he was president, he was completely exempted from showing any kind of certificate on his trips. This is political persecution and an attempt to void the enormous political capital that has only grown,” Wajngarten said.

The former president denied any wrongdoing during questioning in May 2023.

Gleisi Hoffmann, chairwoman of the Workers’ Party, whose candidate defeated Bolsonaro, celebrated his indictment on social media.

She said she hopes the former president stands trial in many other cases, including for his alleged attempt to sneak $3 million US in diamond jewlery into the country and the sale of two luxury watches he received as gifts from Saudi Arabia while in office.

“He has lied until this day about his nefarious administration, but now he will have to face the truth in the courts. The federal police’s indictment sent to prosecutors is just the first of several,” Hoffmann said.

“What is up now, Big Coward? Are you going to face this or run away to Miami?”

Brazil’s Supreme Court has already seized Bolsonaro’s passport.

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Police say data falsified before U.S. trip

Police accuse Bolsonaro and his aides of tampering with the health ministry’s database shortly before he travelled to the U.S. in December 2022, two months after he lost his re-election bid to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Bolsonaro needed a certificate of vaccination to enter the U.S., where he remained for the final days of his term and the first months of Lula’s term.

The former president has repeatedly said he has never taken a COVID-19 vaccine.

If convicted for falsifying health data, the 68-year-old politician could spend up to 12 years behind bars or as little as two years, according to legal analyst Zilan Costa.

The maximum jail time for a charge of criminal association is four years, he said.

Jair Bolsonaro stands with his arms wrapped around the shoulders of his young daughter, surrounded by green, yellow and blue Brazilian flags.
Bolsonaro is seen with his daughter during a protest in front of the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, on May 3, 2020. Brazil’s prosecutor-general’s office will decide whether to use Tuesday’s indictment to file charges against Bolsonaro at the Supreme Court. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

“What Bolsonaro will argue in this case is whether he did insert the data or enable others to do it, or not. And that is plain and simple: Either you have the evidence or you don’t. It is a very serious crime with a very harsh sentence for those convicted,” Costa told The Associated Press.

Shor also said he is awaiting information from the U.S. Justice Department to “clarify whether those under investigation did make use of the false vaccination certificates upon their arrival and stay in American territory.”

If so, further charges could be levelled against Bolsonaro, Shor wrote without specifying in which country.

The indictment sheds new light on a Senate committee inquiry that ended in October 2021 with a recommendation for nine criminal charges against Bolsonaro alleging that he mismanaged the pandemic.

Then prosecutor-general Augusto Aras, who was widely seen as a Bolsonaro ally, declined to move the case forward.

Brazilian media reported that Aras’ successor, Paulo Gonet, was scheduled to meet lawmakers later Tuesday to discuss the possibility of filing charges.

Bolsonaro maintains support

Bolsonaro retains staunch allegiance among his political base, as shown by an outpouring of support last month, when an estimated 185,000 people clogged São Paulo’s main boulevard to decry what they — and the former president — characterize as political persecution.

The indictment will not turn off his backers and will only confirm his detractors’ suspicions, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in São Paulo.

“It is definitely worse for him in courts,” Melo said. “He could be entering a trend of convictions, and then arrest.”

Brazil’s top electoral court has already ruled Bolsonaro ineligible to run for office until 2030, on the grounds that he abused his power during the 2022 campaign and cast unfounded doubts on the country’s electronic voting system.

A large crowd of protesters are seen outside a building.
Protesters and Bolsonaro’s supporters storm the the National Congress building in Brasilia on Jan. 8, 2023, following his election loss to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

Another investigation relates to his alleged involvement in the Jan. 8, 2023, uprising in the capital of Brasilia, soon after Lula took power.

The uprising resembled the U.S. Capitol riot in Washington two years prior.

He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Shor wrote that the indictment will be folded into the investigation of Jan. 8, which is being overseen by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes.

That justice authorized the unsealing of the indictment.

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