RIO DE JANEIRO — Undeclared diamond jewelry brought to Brazil from Saudi Arabia has increased the legal danger of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. An investigation into two sets of jewels reportedly worth millions is just the latest scandal to threaten the far-right politician. But an extensive paper trail and even videos could make the case particularly disheartening for Bolsonaro.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DIAMONDS?
Federal police and prosecutors are investigating whether Bolsonaro attempted to smuggle two sets of expensive diamond jewelry into Brazil without paying taxes — and whether he improperly tried to prevent the items from being included in the presidency’s public collection. Authorities are also investigating whether he engaged government officials to try to evade customs.
The first set of jewels, consisting of earrings, a necklace, a ring and a watch from the Swiss brand Chopard, arrived in Brazil via Sao Paulo International Airport in October 2021 with an adviser to the then Minister of Mines and Energy, Bento Albuquerque , according to the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo, which first reported the case in early March.
Customs authorities seized the jewels, which are said to be worth $3 million. A video released by television network Globo shows Albuquerque at customs later the same day stating that the jewels were for Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle.
A second set of jewels, also made by Chopard and including a watch, a pen, a ring, cufflinks and a piece resembling a rosary, slipped past authorities and ended up in Bolsonaro’s possession. The watch is worth about $150,000, the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reported.
A government watchdog ordered Bolsonaro on March 22 to turn over the jewelry to the state-owned Caixa Economica Federal bank, as well as the firearms he received as a gift from authorities in the United Arab Emirates. Bolsonaro’s representatives did so on Friday.
Brazil requires its citizens arriving by plane from abroad to declare goods worth more than $1,000 and, for any amount above that exemption, pay a tax equal to 50% of their value. The two sets of jewelry would have been tax-exempt had they been a gift from the state of Saudi Arabia to the nation of Brazil, but Bolsonaro would not have had it to keep.
Bruno Dantas, a member of Brazil’s government watchdog, said a president can get a gift for personal use without paying taxes as long as it is of low value, such as a country’s national football team t-shirt. Expensive jewelry doesn’t meet the criteria, he said.
The watchdog said it will monitor all gifts received by the Brazilian presidency during Bolsonaro’s term.
WHAT DID BOLSONARO DO WITH THE SEIZED JEWELRY?
Documents and video footage appear to show Bolsonaro making several failed attempts to retrieve the confiscated jewelry.
A letter from the presidential office was sent to Albuquerque asking for the jewels to be released, O Estado de S.Paulo reported. The ministries of Foreign Affairs and Mining and Energy also sent pressure letters to put pressure on the customs authorities. Bolsonaro then sent a personal letter to customs, said O Estado de S.Paulo.
A last-ditch effort came in the closing days of Bolsonaro’s presidency. According to a document seen by O Estado de S.Paulo, on Bolsonaro’s orders, a sergeant took a military plane to Sao Paulo airport in an unsuccessful attempt to force the release. Globo released video of the sergeant speaking to customs authorities.
WHAT LEGAL ISSUES HAS THE CASE RAISED?
The Senate Transparency Committee is investigating whether the sale of a refinery by Brazilian state oil giant Petrobras to Mubadala Capital in the United Arab Emirates was related to the jewels. Mubadala did not respond to a request for comment sent Friday.
Petrobras completed the sale for $1.65 billion a month after seizing the first set of jewelry in Sao Paulo. The price was “well below” fair market value, an oil workers’ union said in a recent statement.
Rodrigo Sánchez Rios, a law professor at the Pontifical Catholic University in the city of Curitiba, said Bolsonaro could face charges on several counts, including influence influence, embezzlement, money laundering and corruption.
“This is possibly the most evidence-laden crime currently implicating Bolsonaro,” said legal expert Wallace Corbo of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and university.
WHAT DID BOLSONARO SAY ABOUT THE JEWELRY?
“It was not our intention to disappear with this material,” Bolsonaro told Record TV at an event in Florida on Wednesday. He previously told CNN Brasil that he had neither requested nor received the confiscated jewelry.
Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef, said in a statement on March 7 that the former president “officially declared personal property received during travels” and is the target of political persecution.
WHAT ARE BOLSONARO’S OTHER LEGAL ISSUES?
The former president has denied any wrongdoing in all the various cases under investigation, most recently whether he instigated the January 8 riots that saw his supporters loot the Supreme Court, presidential palace and congress a week after leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was murdered. inaugurated as president.
Bolsonaro is the subject of a dozen investigations by Brazil’s electoral tribunal into his conduct during the presidential election campaign, particularly over his baseless claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system is prone to fraud. If Bolsonaro were found guilty in any of those cases, he would lose his political rights and be unable to run for office in the next election.
Separately, Bolsonaro and his allies are also being investigated in a wide-ranging Supreme Court-led investigation into the spread of alleged falsehoods and disinformation in Brazil.
Federal police are also investigating Bolsonaro and his government for alleged genocide against the indigenous Yanomami people in the Amazon rainforest by encouraging illegal miners to invade their territory, endangering their lives. He called the accusation a “hoax from the left”.
Savares reported from Sao Paulo.
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