Thousands of people have protested across Brazil against Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic after the country’s top court authorised an investigation into the president’s response to corruption allegations related to the procurement of vaccines.
Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber authorised a criminal investigation into Bolsonaro’s response to allegations of potential corruption within his health ministry in the process of procuring an Indian COVID-19 vaccine.
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In Friday’s decision, Weber said the investigation is supported by recent testimony in a Senate committee investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic, which has ravaged the South American nation.
Prosecutors will investigate whether Bolsonaro committed the crime of “prevarication” – delaying or refraining from action required as part of a public official’s duty for reasons of personal interest. Weber did not rule out the possibility other potential wrongdoing could be investigated.
The president has been implicated in alleged irregularities surrounding a 1.6 billion reais ($316m) contract signed in February with a Brazilian intermediary of the vaccine’s maker, Indian pharma company Bharat Biotech, for 20 million doses.
A Brazilian Senate commission investigating the administration’s handling of the pandemic has cited suspicions of overpricing and corruption related to the contract.
Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing.
Brazil has suffered the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths and its vaccine rollout has faced widespread criticism as the government was slow to buy vaccines.
The president has faced growing outrage over his handling of the country’s outbreak, which he is accused of badly mismanaging.
Bolsonaro has so far declined to take a vaccine and has sowed doubts about inoculations, pushed unproven miracle cures and underplayed the severity of a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Brazilians.
He has minimised the virus as a “little flu”, fought lockdowns, questioned face masks and urged Brazilians to get back to work.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched in Rio De Janeiro demanding the president step down.
Reporting from the city, Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew said it was the third anti-Bolsonaro protest in five weeks.
“People are calling for Bolsonaro to be impeached. There is growing discontent,” she said, explaining that while anger has been simmering in the Brazilian streets, the new investigation has the potential to be “very damaging” for the far-right leader.
“There are over 120 requests for his impeachment. But it is unlikely that he will be impeached at this point because he has support in the House of Representatives which is where a decision will be taken on whether an impeachment will go ahead,” Yanakiew said.
The decision to authorise an investigation comes after Luis Ricardo Miranda, the chief of the Health Ministry’s import division, said he faced undue pressure to sign off on the import of 20 million COVID-19 vaccines from Bharat Biotech.
Miranda testified before the Senate committee on June 25 along with his brother, Luis Miranda, a lawmaker who until recently was allied with Bolsonaro. The Mirandas said they brought their concerns directly to the president, who assured them he would report the irregularities to the Federal Police.
The secretary-general of the presidency, Onyx Lorenzoni, confirmed Bolsonaro met with the Mirandas, but claimed they presented fraudulent documents. Bolsonaro ordered the brothers investigated, he said.
After allegations of irregularities surfaced, the government suspended the contract.
Bharat has denied any wrongdoing with respect to vaccine supply. Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of corruption, and told reporters on June 28 he cannot know what transpires within his ministries.