Brazil justice minister quits, dealing major political blow to Bolsonaro

Brasilia, Apr 24 (efe-epa).- A former federal judge who gained international recognition by spearheading a sprawling anti-graft campaign resigned Friday as Brazil’s justice minister, accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of political meddling for dismissing the country’s top police official earlier in the day.

The departure of Sergio Moro, viewed by many conservatives in Brazil as a heroic defender of justice, represents a harsh political blow for the rightist head of state and also provoked financial turmoil in the South American country.

Brazil’s most popular Cabinet minister announced his decision in a press conference in which he said Bolsonaro’s decision to fire Federal Police Director Mauricio Valeixo earlier Friday constituted “political interference” in law-enforcement investigations.

Moro slammed Bolsonaro for allegedly backtracking on his vow to give him carte-blanche to name his closest advisers and carry out his anti-corruption fight, in which the Federal Police (overseen by the Justice Ministry) plays a key role.

He also hinted that the president intends to replace Valeixo with someone who will report directly to him and keep him abreast of the investigations. He did not elaborate on those probes, although it is widely believed they will land Bolsonaro’s sons and other members of his inner circle in legal hot water.

In addition, Moro said he did not sign the notice of Valeixo’s dismissal but that even so his digital signature appears on the document along with Bolsonaro’s, suggesting that the manner in which the top cop was fired may constitute a serious crime.

Moro’s approval rating of nearly 60 percent is double that enjoyed by Bolsonaro, who in a press conference Friday evening denied interfering in Federal Police investigations and defended his decision to fire Valeixo.

“They’re talking about me interfering in the Federal Police, but if I can change a minister, why can’t I change the director of the Federal Police without asking for anyone’s authorization?” the president said.

Bolsonaro also returned fire on Moro, saying the ex-justice minister had shown he “was committed to himself and not to Brazil.”

The now ex-justice minister rose to prominence by overseeing a sprawling probe known as Lava Jato (Car Wash) that initially centered on a $2 billion corruption scandal at Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.

He became a hero of the right in Brazil by targeting former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – an iconic left-wing figure in Latin America and still Brazil’s most popular politician – in his investigations and finding him guilty in 2017 of accepting bribes from construction company OAS in the form of renovations to a seaside condo that the former two-term head of state never owned or occupied.

Serious questions were later raised about Moro’s conviction of Lula – who vehemently denies any wrongdoing – by online news outlet The Intercept, which last year published the leaked contents of private communications that showed the then-federal judge was deeply involved in shaping the prosecution strategy against the ex-president.

Lula’s conviction and subsequent incarceration (he has since been released pending further appeals) caused him to be excluded from the 2018 presidential election, thus paving the way for Bolsonaro, an ex-lawmaker and military officer who had previously been a fringe figure, to win the presidency on a wave of public fury over deep-seated corruption.

After his victory, Bolsonaro chose Moro to head the Justice Ministry in a bid to burnish his own anti-graft credentials.

Moro’s remarks at his parting press conference caused a political firestorm in Brazil and prompted suggestions from some sectors that there could be grounds to impeach Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019.

The president of the Brazilian Bar Association, Felipe Santa Cruz, said his organization will look into the accusations made by Moro in his Friday press conference.

They include allegations that Bolsonaro sought to meddle in law enforcement and also committed “ideological falsehood” by including Moro’s signature on the notice of Valeixo’s dismissal.

“I must express my regret and indignation over the crisis imposed on us by the president with extremely suspicious motives amid a pandemic crisis that, because of its seriousness, should be the only (crisis),” Santa Cruz said of the novel coronavirus, which is blamed for more than 3,000 deaths in Brazil.

Many analysts say Valeixo’s dismissal is linked to Federal Police investigations that have caused unease among the “Bolsonaro clan” – the head of state and three of his sons: Flavio, a senator; Eduardo, a lower-house lawmaker; and Carlos, a Rio de Janeiro city councillor.

One of those probes concerns the alleged dissemination on social media of fake news, which is believed to stem from groups directly linked to Carlos Bolsonaro and a so-called “office of hate” operating out of the presidential palace in Brasilia.

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