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Brazil Senate recommends Bolsonaro be charged with crimes against humanity

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Brazil has suffered one of the world's most severe COVID-19 outbreaks, but you wouldn't know it from its president's behavior. Jair Bolsonaro has undermined vaccines. He's encouraged Brazilians to form crowds, and he's touted ineffective treatments. A Senate inquiry in Brazil concluded that thousands of deaths could have been avoided if Bolsonaro and his government had done things differently. Members of the inquiry voted yesterday to recommend that Bolsonaro be indicted for nine offences, including crimes against humanity. We're joined now by NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

MCCAMMON: Phil, what are these accusations that have been made against Bolsonaro, first of all?

REEVES: Well, they concern quite a few aspects of his behavior and that of his government - his frequent refusal to wear masks, the way he initially dismissed the virus as in significant, delays last year acquiring vaccines, his defiance of science and continued promotion of ineffective treatments, including hydroxychloroquine. And the inquiry concluded that if you piece everything together, this amounts to a deliberate attempt to seek herd immunity in Brazil and that this then led to the needless loss of many, many lives. So they're recommending that Bolsonaro be indicted on counts that include inciting a pandemic with the loss of life, encouraging people to commit crimes, misusing funds, charlatanism and crimes against humanity, which is a kind of catchall that also encompasses negligent treatment of Indigenous people.

MCCAMMON: Now, does this recommendation mean that Bolsonaro will actually be charged and tried?

REEVES: Well, the senators who led this inquiry formally handed their findings to Brazil's prosecutor general today in the form of a report that's nearly 1,300 pages long. And it's basically up to the prosecutor general to decide whether to shelve their recommendations or to seek permission from the Supreme Court to launch an investigation and proceed with some form of case or cases. However, the prosecutor general was appointed by Bolsonaro, and he's considered an ally of his. So legal commentators here are, therefore, generally pretty doubtful that this will lead anywhere.

Meanwhile, that allegation of crimes against humanity goes to the International Criminal Court. But that court moves slowly, and it can take years to determine even whether a case is within its jurisdiction. So nothing's likely to happen any time soon.

MCCAMMON: If Bolsonaro ultimately is not indicted, does this mean this whole thing was a waste of time? I mean, what other impacts could this have for him?

REEVES: No, I don't think it means that. Because this inquiry - you know, it lasted six months. The panel comprised 11 senators, seven of them Bolsonaro opponents. And day after day, Brazilians watched live on TV as they laid out the whole tragic story of Brazil's pandemic and the government's response to it. The public heard about the catastrophe in the city of Manaus, where the health system totally collapsed and oxygen ran out, so people suffocated in their beds. They heard about alleged attempts by government middlemen to skim off money from vaccine purchases in the middle of the pandemic. And of course, they had an awful lot about Bolsonaro's conduct.

So these findings are really an important historic record that's been secured through the application of democracy in a nation where some fear democracy is under threat. They also have political implications. Brazil has a presidential election next year, and this could well damage Bolsonaro's re-election chances.

MCCAMMON: Very briefly, Phil, how is Bolsonaro responding to this?

REEVES: Well, he's been scornful of the inquiry from the start, dismissing it as political theater. After this inquiry recommended his indictment, he went on social media and linked COVID vaccines with getting AIDS, a complete falsehood that was later removed by Facebook and Instagram.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Philip Reeves talking to us from Rio de Janeiro. Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYCORISCORIS' "BELONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.