Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, Covid inquiry finds

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<span>Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity and jailed for his “macabre” reaction to a Covid outbreak that has killed more than 600,000 Brazilians, including a disproportionate number of indigenous citizens, a congressional inquiry has found.

Two of the most dramatic accusations against the Brazilian president – murder and genocide of the country’s indigenous populations – were removed from a previous draft of the report on Tuesday night after talks between opposition senators serving on the inquiry.

But the final draft suggests the committee will recommend Brazil’s populist president be charged with nine separate offenses including charlatanism, incitement to commit crimes, the propagation of pathogenic germs, and crimes against humanity.

The investigation, which Bolsonaro’s political rivals hope will wreck his chances of re-election, was set up in April and is scheduled to conclude next Tuesday when senators vote on its final report.

That 1,180-page document – which savages the Bolsonaro administration’s anti-scientific and “slovenly” pandemic response – will make profoundly uncomfortable reading for Brazil’s far-right leader and dozens of allies, against whom charges are also recommended.

“[We must] never forget what happened in this country or the innocent people who lost their lives as a result of the government’s reckless handling of the pandemic,” says the final draft of the report, seen by the Guardian on Wednesday.

“The president committed many crimes and he will pay for them,” the inquiry’s president, Senator Omar Aziz, told a hearing in the capital, Brasília, on Wednesday before the document’s official presentation.

Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, the inquiry’s vice-president, told reporters the alleged crimes meant Bolsonaro’s future should lie behind bars. “The report assigns more than 100 years in prison to the president of the republic. That is what the collection of suggested crimes points to,” Rodrigues said.

The accusation of crimes against humanity – which the report says will be referred to the international criminal court in The Hague – relates to what the report calls the Bolsonaro administration’s “deliberate neglect” of indigenous people as Covid tore across the South American country and into their supposedly protected territories.

“The federal government found in the virus an ally to strike the indigenous,” the document claims, highlighting Bolsonaro’s well-documented hostility to the original inhabitants of the lands that became Brazil after Portuguese colonizers arrived in 1500.

Related: Brazil could have stopped 400,000 Covid deaths with better government response, expert says

“There is a clear causal link between the anti-indigenous posture of [Brazil’s] top leader and the harm suffered by indigenous people, even if he might not have directly killed anyone,” the report alleges.

“Even before the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro commanded an anti-indigenous policy that deliberately exposed native peoples to a lack of assistance, harassment, land invasions and violence, with these acts of outright hostility intensifying … after the arrival of the virus.”

“By allowing the virus to proceed … he caused death and suffering remotely. The constant harassment and deliberate neglect, combined with the pandemic, were worse than weapons.”

The report is also scathing about Bolsonaro’s broader pandemic response, including what it calls his calculated bid to achieve herd immunity by allowing Covid’s uncontrolled spread, and attempts to undermine vaccination and containment measures such as face masks and social distancing.

“The consequences of this macabre strategy were measured by science,” the report says. “Had non-pharmaceutical interventions been systematically implemented, transmission rates could have been reduced by about 40%, which means 120,000 lives could have been saved by the end of March 2021.”

The government’s most serious failing was the “unjustifiable and intentional delay” in negotiating the purchase of Covid vaccines with companies such as Pfizer, whose approaches were repeatedly ignored. “Brazil could have been the first country in the world to start vaccination, together with the UK … this mistaken strategy cost the country dearly,” the report says.

Speaking at an event in north-east Brazil, Bolsonaro attacked the Covid inquiry, claiming it had “produced nothing but hatred and resentment”.

“We know that we bear absolutely no guilt. We know we did the right thing from the very start,” Bolsonaro said, as supporters shouted insults at the report’s author, Senator Renan Calheiros, who they called a “bum”.

Experts say Bolsonaro is unlikely to be prosecuted or impeached in the short-term. The most likely impact will be on his ability to win a second term in next year’s election.

Deisy Ventura, a professor from the University of São Paulo’s public health faculty, said that whatever Bolsonaro’s immediate political future, the report was hugely significant because it recognised that the push for herd immunity through infection had been a deliberate strategy.

“Even among those who don’t support the president … there was this very strong belief that [this happened] because the president is mad, or the government is really incompetent … when this was actually all intentional,” said Ventura, whose research was cited by the inquiry.

Ventura added: “If this isn’t recognized as a crime, as something that needs punishing, then the risk is that this could become natural. The biggest fear those of us who study pandemics have is that the use of the herd immunity through infection strategy might be legitimized as a response to other epidemics.”

The president is not the only member of the Bolsonaro clan cited in the Covid report, which is expected to be approved by senators next Tuesday. Three of his politician sons – Carlos, Eduardo and Flávio Bolsonaro – are denounced over their alleged role in commanding a fake news network that flooded social media with disinformation about the pandemic.

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