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Brazil's president should face homicide charges over pandemic, Senate report to say


A congressional panel in Brazil is preparing to accuse the country's president, Jair Bolsonaro, of crimes against humanity. That's how they describe his handling of the pandemic. New York Times reporter Jack Nicas is based in Rio de Janeiro, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program.

JACK NICAS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Thanks for joining us. What did Bolsonaro do?

NICAS: Well, according to this key congressional investigation into his handling of the pandemic, they say that he intentionally let the coronavirus spread unchecked through the country and kill hundreds of thousands of Brazilians in a failed bid to achieve herd immunity and force the return of the economy.

INSKEEP: Wow. Now, I guess we should be clear about what's on the record and what's new here. The fact that Bolsonaro has aggressively dismissed the pandemic has been fairly public, but I guess what's new here is the idea that he was intentional about this. Is that correct?

NICAS: In many ways, yes. You know, Bolsonaro absolutely has been on the record with basically denying the severity of the pandemic, being skeptical about vaccines and actually embracing unproven cures for the coronavirus, like hydroxychloroquine. But it is rather strong to have this congressional panel, which really was Brazil's main investigation into the government's handling of the pandemic, conclude that he had intentionally allowed the coronavirus to kill hundreds of thousands of Brazilians. They actually, essentially, laid the blame for more than 300,000 deaths at his feet. And that is half of the nation's coronavirus death toll.

INSKEEP: Wow. What does it mean when lawmakers in your own country accuse you, the president, of mass homicide?

NICAS: It's a striking condemnation - you know, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most aggressive and extreme accusations from a sitting Congress towards a sitting president in a nation. And it certainly reflects the deep polarization in Brazil and also the severity of the pandemic here. It has been an absolute tragedy, of course, across the world, but it has been especially severe here in Brazil. And that has been exacerbated by how the government has handled it.

INSKEEP: Could this become a criminal case?

NICAS: That's the idea here. So the congressional panel is actually recommended - recommending criminal charges against President Bolsonaro. There are nine separate criminal charges, the main one being crimes against humanity. The attorney general in Brazil will now have 30 days to make a decision on whether or not to press charges. He is not expected to do so because he is an ally of Mr. Bolsonaro. But the leader of this Senate panel has suggested that they will pursue other potential legal avenues, including potentially Brazil's Supreme Court or the International Criminal Court.

INSKEEP: You would imagine this to be mainly a legal proceeding, but of course, it's also political. So in a few seconds, how popular is the president right now?

NICAS: His popularity is spiraling, and it has been kind of since the beginning of the pandemic. So this is just one of many political crises that he's facing. The economy is really struggling in Brazil, and he is facing a difficult reelection bid next year.

INSKEEP: Jack Nicas of The New York Times in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

NICAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.