A Brazilian Senate committee on Wednesday recommended that President Jair Bolsonaro face at least 10 charges, including crimes against humanity, over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report published in local media.
Following six months of hearings, with emotional witness statements and chilling revelations, the committee of inquiry requested charges against around 60 people, including five ministers or ex-ministers, and three of Bolsonaro's sons.
Brazil is one of the worst affected countries in the world by the pandemic with more than 600,000 deaths. Bolsonaro has repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus, calling it a "little flu" at one point, promoting treatments that scientists said were ineffective, railing against lockdown measures to slow the spread and speaking out against vaccinations.
Renan Calheiros, the centrist senator who is the lead author of the 1,200-page report, will read it out in Congress later on Wednesday.
He will ask that Bolsonaro be charged with "intentional" crimes including "quackery" and "crimes against humanity." But he announced a last-minute withdrawal of "homicide" and "genocide" charges, after some infighting within the panel.
The report says that the committee has "gathered evidence that the federal government ... acted slowly in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, deliberately exposing the population to a real risk of mass infection."
While the accusations are serious, the process may be just symbolic since Bolsonaro enjoys enough congressional support to avoid the opening of impeachment proceedings.
Likewise, Attorney General Augusto Aras, an ally appointed by Bolsonaro, could shield him from any indictment.
Bolsonaro – who faces a tricky general election next year – has dismissed the committee's report as a "masquerade."
"This report will seem like a sentence, but the government is calm. You can criticise the president's attitude, but not incriminate him," Fernando Bezerra, head of the government's parliamentary bloc in the Senate, told the Uol website.
'We deserve an apology'
The inquiry does not have the power to bring charges, but its revelations could have a political impact: the report will be sent to the public prosecutor, the federal court of accounts, and could even be sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where other complaints against Bolsonaro have already been lodged.
It is yet another headache for the president, whose popularity has plummeted to an all-time low and who trails leftist former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in polls ahead of next year's vote.
The report was originally due to be presented on Tuesday but had to be put back 24 hours, eliciting criticism from Brazilian media, which have been leaking details.
Following testimony from several ministers, government officials, and business and hospital managers, it was the turn of the families of Covid victims to present their statements to the committee on Monday.
"We deserve an apology from the highest authority in the state. It's not a question of politics, we're talking about lives," Marcio Antonio Silva, a taxi driver who lost his 25-year-old son to Covid, told the panel, holding back tears.
"What we've seen is the antithesis of what we expected from the president of the republic," said Antonio Carlos Costa, president of the Rio de Paz NGO. "We've never seen him shed tears of compassion, nor express his condolences for the Brazilian people in mourning."
On Monday, the committee also heard the harrowing testimony of a nurse in Manaus who saw dozens of patients dying and had to take care of her sister's four children after she also succumbed to the virus.
The committee investigated the government over the crippling lack of oxygen in the northern city of Manaus during the worst moments of the pandemic, and also the delays in buying vaccines, Bolsonaro's anti-lockdown speeches, and his original belittling of what he called a "little flu."
Senators subsequently discovered irregularities in the acquisition of vaccines, something that generated strong suspicions of corruption.
Another branch of the investigation focused on the relationship between Brasilia and private health insurers accused of promoting "early treatment" with medications such as hydroxychloroquine, which has been scientifically proven to be ineffective.
by Valeria Pacheco in Brasilia, with Louis Genot in Rio de Janiero, AFP