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LATIN AMERICA | 30-06-2023 15:54

Brazil court bars Jair Bolsonaro from holding public office

Former Brazil president says he will would appeal a court decision to bar him from public office for eight years, a ruling he described as a "stab in the back."

A Brazilian court on Friday barred far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro from holding public office for eight years over making unfounded claims against the country's voting system.

Prosecutors blamed Bolsonaro's statements for a violent invasion of the presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court in January by supporters angry about his electoral loss to leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In a verdict that stretched over several days, five of the seven judges on Brazil's Superior Electoral Tribunal voted to censure Bolsonaro for alleged abuses of power, while two found in his favour. 

The tribunal tried Bolsonaro, 68, over a televised meeting he held with foreign diplomats in July 2022, three months before his election defeat to Lula.

Responding to the news, Bolsonaro said he would appeal the decision, which he described as a "stab in the back," all the way to the Supreme Court.

"I'm not dead, we're going to keep working," Bolsonaro told journalists after being censured by the Superior Electoral Tribunal for making unfounded claims of security flaws in the country's voting system. 

Bolsonaro spent nearly an hour making his argument to the assembled ambassadors, but presented no hard evidence to back his claims that electronic voting machines in use since 1996 compromised election transparency.

The TSE ruling means Bolsonaro will be ineligible to stand in the presidential election in 2026, opening the contest for a new leader of Brazil's political right.

Bolsonaro was not present for the ruling in Brasilia, traveling instead to Belo Horizonte in Brazil's southeast, where he was scheduled to have lunch with members of his Liberal Party.

On Thursday, he insisted he was innocent, telling reporters: "Wanting to take away my political rights for abuse of political power is inexplicable."


'Collective paranoia'

The lead judge on the case, Benedito Gonçalves, ruled Tuesday to convict Bolsonaro, saying he had used "violent speech and lies" that "endangered the credibility" of Brazil's electoral system.

Goncalves said the 2022 meeting "served to incite a state of collective paranoia" about elections at a time Brazil was deeply polarised.

"He instigated a belief that there was a real threat that the results of the 2022 election would be adulterated," said the judge. "It was extremely harmful to the democratic environment."

On Thursday, judge Floriano Marques also voted for conviction, saying Bolsonaro had acted with "electoral objectives" to "intentionally convey the idea that Brazilian elections are not clean."

Colleague Raul Araujo, however, voted for acquittal, saying a sentence of electoral ineligibility was "extreme."

Nearly half the electorate voted for Bolsonaro in last October's second round, but it was not enough for a win.

Bolsonaro's lawyer Tarcisio Vieira has already said he would appeal a guilty verdict to the Supreme Court.


Tropical Trump

Bolsonaro's unsubstantiated talk of election fraud and the January 8 riots drew comparisons to his political role model, Donald Trump, and his bid to hang onto power after losing the 2020 US presidential election.

Nicknamed the "Tropical Trump," Bolsonaro's presidency was tumultuous: at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that claimed more than 700,000 lives in Brazil, he mocked face masks, social distancing and vaccines, warning the jab could "turn you into an alligator."

He also faced an international outcry over the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which surged on his watch.

Bolsonaro spent three months in the United States after his term ended, and has kept an uncharacteristically low profile since returning to Brazil in March to serve as honorary president of his Liberal Party.

He faces a raft of other legal woes. Any one of five Supreme Court investigations could send him to jail – including over the January 8 attacks.

The police are also investigating claims of a fake Covid-19 vaccination certificate and of diamond jewellery snuck into the country from Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of Bolsonaro's far-right supporters stormed the halls of power in Brasilia on January 8, trashing offices, vandalising artworks and calling for the military to intervene to oust Lula.

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