Brazil’s Bolsonaro indicted for alleged money laundering for undeclared diamonds from Saudi Arabia

The indictment of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for money laundering and criminal association in connection with undeclared diamonds from Saudi Arabia marked the far-right leader’s second formal accusation with more potentially in store

Updated - July 05, 2024 11:59 am IST

Published - July 05, 2024 11:09 am IST - SAO PAULO

Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro reacts at an event in Sao Paulo, Brazil. File Photo

Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro reacts at an event in Sao Paulo, Brazil. File Photo | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The indictment of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for money laundering and criminal association in connection with undeclared diamonds from Saudi Arabia marked the far-right leader’s second formal accusation with more potentially in store.

Two sources with knowledge of the case confirmed Thursday's indictment by Federal Police, which followed another formal accusation in May against Bolsonaro for allegedly falsifying his COVID-19 vaccination certificate. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Brazil’s Supreme Court has yet to receive the police report with the latest indictment. Once it does, the country’s prosecutor-general, Paulo Gonet, will analyze the document and decide whether to file charges and force Bolsonaro to stand trial.

The indictment dramatically raises the legal threats facing the divisive ex-leader that are applauded by his opponents but denounced as political persecution by his supporters.

Bolsonaro did not immediately comment, but he and his lawyers have previously denied any wrongdoing in both those cases, as well as other investigations into the former president. One is probing his possible involvement in inciting an uprising in capital Brasilia on Jan. 8, 2023 that sought to oust his successor from power.

Last year, Federal Police accused Bolsonaro of attempting to sneak in diamond jewelry reportedly worth $3 million and selling two luxury watches.

Police said in August that Bolsonaro received cash from the nearly $70,000 sale of two luxury watches he received as gifts from Saudi Arabia. Brazil requires its citizens arriving by plane from abroad to declare goods worth more than $1,000 and, for any amount above that exemption, pay a tax equal to 50% of their value.

The jewelry would have been exempt from tax had it been a gift from Saudi Arabia to Brazil, but not Bolsonaro’s to keep for himself. Rather, it would have been added to the presidential collection.

The investigation showed that Mauro Cid, Bolsonaro’s former aide-de-camp who allegedly falsified his COVID-19 records, in June 2022 sold a Rolex watch and a Patek Philippe watch to a store in the U.S for a total $68,000. They were gifted by Saudi Arabia’s government in 2019. Cid later signed a plea bargain with authorities and confirmed it all.

Flávio Bolsonaro, the former president’s eldest son and a sitting senator, said on X after Thursday's indictment that persecution against his father was “blatant and shameless.”

10 others indicted

In addition to Bolsonaro, police indicted 10 others, including Cid and two of his lawyers, Frederick Wassef and Fábio Wajngarten, according to one of the sources. Wassef said in a statement that he didn’t have access to the final report of the investigation, and decried selective leaks to the press of an investigation that is supposed to be proceeding under seal.

“I am going through all of this solely for practicing law in defense of Jair Bolsonaro,” he wrote.

On X, Wajngarten said police have found no evidence implicating him. “The Federal Police knows I did nothing related to what they are investigating, but they still want to punish me because I provide unwavering and permanent defense for former President Bolsonaro,” he said.

Bolsonaro retains staunch allegiance among his political base, as shown by an outpouring of support in February, when an estimated 185,000 people clogged Sao Paulo’s main boulevard to protest what the former president calls political persecution.

His critics, particularly members of his rival President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s political party, have cheered every advance of investigations and repeatedly called for his arrest.

The 69-year-old former army captain started his political career as a staunch advocate of Brazil’s military dictatorship, and was a lawmaker for nearly three decades. When he bid for the presidency for the first time, in 2018, he was widely dismissed as an outsider and too radically conservative. But he surprised analysts with a decisive victory, in no small part due to his self-portrayal as an upstanding citizen in the years following a sprawling corruption probe that ensnared hundreds of politicians and executives.

Bolsonaro insulted adversaries since his earliest days in office while garnering critics with his divisive policies, attacks on the Supreme Court and efforts to undermine health restrictions during the pandemic. He lost his reelection bid in the closest finish since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985.

Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper University in Sao Paulo, believes Brazil’s Supreme Court and the justice overseeing several investigations targeting Bolsonaro, Alexandre de Moraes, will not risk sending the former president to prison or imposing other harsh measures with any haste. The objective, he said, is to avoid instigating supporters of the far-right leader and so make cases against him more politically sensitive to prosecute.

“This is a year of mayoral elections. Moraes and his fellow justices know that prosecuting a former president who remains a popular man would be even tougher in a year like this,” Melo said. “This indictment is another piece of the puzzle. It gives one more problem to Bolsonaro. There will be more.”

Last year, Brazil’s top electoral court ruled that Bolsonaro abused his presidential powers during his 2022 reelection bid, which rendered him ineligible for any elections until 2030. The case focused on a meeting during which Bolsonaro used government staffers, the state television channel and the presidential palace in Brasilia to tell foreign ambassadors that the country’s electronic voting system was rigged.

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