Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro is facing a possible arrest over a jewellery scandal that involves luxury watches, fake vaccination records, and a botched military coup.
On Thursday, Bolsonaro and seven close associates – including his wife and his former right-hand man – were questioned by federal police over a suspected embezzlement and money laundering scheme in which investigators believe expensive gifts from foreign governments were smuggled out of Brazil on the presidential jet and sold in the US.
It was the fifth time Bolsonaro – who had already been banned from seeking office until 2030 – had been questioned since stepping down in January after his election defeat to the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Eight months after Bolsonaro left power, friends and foes alike are increasingly convinced it is only a matter of time before he is detained.
The scandal, dubbed “Jewellerygate” by Brazilian newspapers, has shocked the public and tarnished Bolsonaro’s image as a law and order politician.
Brazilian law bars government officials from keeping expensive gifts. It later emerged that Bolsonaro allies had sold or attempted to sell several pricey gifts in the United States. Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef, reportedly sold one diamond-encrusted Rolex watch at a jewelry store in the US state of Pennsylvania, then repurchased it after the transaction came in for scrutiny.
Police are investigating allegations the group executed a conspiracy for the “illicit enrichment” of Bolsonaro. The case could land the 68-year-old former president (2019-2022) in prison if he is convicted.
Bolsonaro and former first lady Michelle Bolsonaro “have opted to exercise their right to remain silent regarding the matters under investigation,” the pair said in documents presented to investigators when the couple reported for questioning at federal police headquarters, according to Brazilian media reports.
The former first couple deny wrongdoing. Besides the Bolsonaros, six former aides and alleged accomplices had been summoned to face questioning in separate, simultaneous interrogations.
The case triggered a scandal in March, when newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo reported that customs officials had seized a set of diamond jewels – a present from Saudi Arabia – from a government aide who tried to bring them into Brazil undeclared in his backpack after a trip to the Middle East in 2021.
It is speculated that Bolsonaro’s former aide is helping investigators and has been negotiating a “partial confession” as part of a possible plea bargain.
In an interview with TV network GloboNews, Lula’s justice minister, Flávio Dino, did not rule out police striking a plea bargain with Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing and on Thursday exercised his right to remain silent, along with three of the seven others being questioned.
However, some leftists fear that Bolsonaro’s arrest could backfire and give him a martyr status among his supporters.
Bolsonaro’s son, Carlos Bolsonaro, recently expressed his anxiety over the possibility of his father’s arrest on social media. He tweeted: “They want to arrest my father at any cost. They are afraid of his popularity and his influence. They are trying to silence him with lies and fabrications.”