Apparent links between Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro and two suspects arrested over the murder of rights activist Marielle Franco are believed to be a coincidence, police said Tuesday, as the president faced scrutiny over the connections yesterday.
One of the two suspects apparently published a photograph of himself alongside Bolsonaro on his Facebook account -- since deleted -- while the other lived in the same Rio de Janeiro residential complex as the president.
Bolsonaro dismissed the photo with suspect Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, which went viral on social media, as one of thousands he's posed for with members of the Armed Forces. And police said it was a mere coincidence that the second suspect, retired military police officer Ronnie Lessa, shared a residence with the Brazilian president.
"The fact that [Lessa] lives in the same residential complex as Bolsonaro has little to do with the Marielle affair," police commissioner Giniton Lages told reporters. "There is no direct relationship with the Bolsonaro family, we've discovered nothing."
When asked by a journalist about an apparent romantic relationship between Lessa's daughter and one of Bolsonaro's sons, Lages replied: "That's right... but that's not important for us at the moment."
The two police officers were arrested Tuesday in the killing of Rio city councilor and black gay rights activist Marielle Franco, prosecutors said, almost a year to the day after the brazen murder shocked Brazil.
Franco, 38, grew up in a slum and went on to become a charismatic defender of the poor and the LGBT community, and an outspoken critic of police brutality and racism.
She was slain in a drive-by shooting along with her drive in downtown Rio de Janeiro on the evening of March 14, 2018.
Lessa, 48, was arrested early Tuesday, suspected of having pulled the trigger – 13 times – that killed Franco and her chauffeur Anderson Gomes in March last year.
He was detained at his home in the upmarket seaside neighbourhood of Barra de Tijuca, where Bolsonaro lives when in Rio, police confirmed. It was there that the far-right presidential candidate celebrated his election victory in October in front of a massive gathering of supporters.
Raiding his home, as well as those of his friends, police discovered a cache of automatic weapons, ammunition, money and other equipment.
Vieira de Queiroz, 46, who was previously sacked from the military police, is believed to have driven the car that followed Franco's own vehicle before the lethal drive-by shooting.
A photo dating back to 2011 of him seemingly besides Bolsonaro had been reproduced and shared all over the web, prior to his Facebook account being deleted.
Only the bottom half of Bolsonaro's face could be seen in the picture and AFP's fact-checking team was unable to prove that the figure in the photo was indeed the president.
When questioned on the matter by journalists, Bolsonaro said: "I've had my picture taken with thousands of soldiers all over Brazil."
"The most important thing is to know who ordered this murder," added Bolsonaro.
Franco's death last year triggered protests around the world and mass demonstrations in Brazil, but there had been little sign of progress in the murder investigation before Tuesday's arrests.
Franco's partner Monica Benicio told AFP the arrests were "a crucial step."
"But on top of prison for these mercenary rats, someone has to answer the question: who ordered Marielle's killing?" she said.
"Two days before the anniversary of the death of my daughter, it is a consolation to know the police have arrested suspects. It was high time to get an answer," Franco's mother, Marinete Silva, told the G1 news site. "Now we need to know who ordered it."
Prosecutors in a special organised crime unit say the shooting was meticulously planned over the course of three months, and there is no doubt that Franco was "summarily executed" because of her political activism and the causes that she defended.
The murder "was an attempt to silence all those movements that are growing: of black women, of the LGBT population – they wanted black women to abandon their fights, and for the LGBT population to withdraw," Benicio told AFP last week during the Rio carnival festivities.
After Rio hosted the summer Olympics in 2016, violence increased between drug gangs as well as between these gangs and paramilitary police militia and security forces.
Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker and mentor of Franco, said Tuesday's arrests were "a decisive step but the case has not yet been solved."
The conservative government of Michel Temer, President Jair Bolsonaro's predecessor, had promised to make swift arrests and to bring to trial those responsible for the councilor's killing, a pledge regarded with scepticism in a country where the vast majority of homicides go unpunished.
The investigation made little initial progress, to the frustration of human rights activists who have campaigned relentlessly to keep the case alive. Franco's image can still be seen on walls around Rio de Janeiro, with the message "Marielle present."
Justice Minister Sergio Moro said on Twitter he hoped the arrests would provide "greater clarity to this terrible crime so that those responsible face justice."
But lawyer Walter Maierovitch told AFP that Tuesday's arrests were nothing but "a smokescreen."
For the anniversary of her death on Thursday, demonstrations have been planned around the country. Homage was paid to Franco during the Rio carnival by a samba school, Mangueira, which went on to be crowned champion of the parade.