Police in Brazil have raided the home of former President Jair Bolsonaro as part of an investigation into falsified COVID-19 vaccination documents.
In a statement on Wednesday, federal police said they conducted 16 raids in Rio de Janeiro and the capital, Brasilia, targeting a “criminal network” believed to have “inserted false COVID-19 vaccination information into public health systems”.
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The statement did not name Bolsonaro specifically.
Police said the false vaccination certificates, which occurred between November 2021 and December of last year, “resulted in the alteration of the true COVID-19 vaccination status of the individuals in question”.
“As a result, the individuals were able to emit vaccination certificates and use them to evade health restrictions put in place by authorities in Brazil and the United States,” the statement said.
The vaccine investigation is one of several probes targeting the former far-right leader, a COVID-19 sceptic who during his tenure repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the virus and rejected the need for public health restrictions.
The probe may answer questions about how Bolsonaro, who pledged to never get a COVID-19 vaccine, was registered as vaccinated in health records made public in February.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, approximately 700,000 coronavirus deaths were recorded in Brazil – the second-highest death toll in the world after the US – and Bolsonaro’s administration had faced criticism and large protests over its handling of the pandemic.
Speaking to reporters outside his home after Wednesday’s raid, Bolsonaro said he was “surprised” by the search and reiterated that he never got a jab.
“For my part, there was nothing falsified. I didn’t take the vaccine. Period,” he said, adding that police seized his mobile phone.
Brazilian television network Globo earlier on Wednesday broadcast images that showed police inside Bolsonaro’s condominium complex in Brasilia.
Two people familiar with the probe said police had arrested Mauro Cid and Max Guilherme, personal assistants to Bolsonaro as president who stayed on as his aides when he stepped down in January, the Reuters news agency reported.
In late December, Bolsonaro left the South American nation for the US, avoiding the inauguration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who defeated him in a hard-fought October vote.
He stayed in the US state of Florida for three months before returning to Brazil in March.
On Wednesday, Valdemar Costa Neto, the leader of Bolsonaro’s political party, expressed support for the ex-president following the search. “We trust that all doubts the Judiciary has will be clarified and it will be proven that Bolsonaro didn’t do anything illegal,” Neto wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro also faces investigations into attacks on the legitimacy of Brazil’s electoral system and embezzlement of foreign gifts.
A mob of the former president’s supporters stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace in January in a bid to overturn last year’s election results.
The riot in Brasilia came after Bolsonaro for months falsely claimed that the Brazilian electronic voting system was vulnerable to widespread fraud – a claim rejected by judicial experts.
Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, said the ex-president has rebuffed allegations that he bears responsibility for the January 8 attack.
“Bolsonaro said that he was not responsible for [the attack], that he was in the United States during the uprising, and that he had condemned the violent attacks,” she said.