Witness at Brazil’s Covid inquiry denounced as ‘plant’ amid high farce

Congressman at centre of graft allegations says witness is being used to discredit him

Women after being evicted from a settlement of homeless people set up during the Covid-19 pandemic in Rio de Janeiro state. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty

Women after being evicted from a settlement of homeless people set up during the Covid-19 pandemic in Rio de Janeiro state. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty

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A witness before Brazil’s congressional inquiry into the country’s pandemic response was denounced as a “plant” after he attempted to discredit a congressman who implicated far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in a corruption scheme involving Covid-19 vaccines.

In a session on Thursday marked by tension and farce, police corporal Luiz Paulo Dominghetti played an audio message that he claimed showed deputy Luis Miranda was trying to negotiate bribes related to vaccine purchases by the health ministry.

Mr Miranda last week set off a political storm in Brasília when he revealed that he had advised Mr Bolsonaro about corruption relating to vaccine purchases. Despite the warning the president did nothing, allegedly because the author of the scheme is his administration’s leader in congress.

Mr Miranda immediately rebutted the claims of Mr Dominghetti, saying the audio was from last year and had nothing to do with vaccines, labelling the policeman a “Trojan horse” for the government designed to discredit him.

Advised by the inquiry that his evidence was being contested and that he was under oath, Mr Dominghetti said he might have misunderstood the audio. Several inquiry members sought his immediate arrest, accusing him of being a “planted witness”.

Their demand was denied by the chairman, senator Omar Aziz, who said the police officer had been “induced” to implicate Mr Miranda using “out of context and edited evidence”. Nevertheless, in his weekly live Facebook session later on Thursday night, Mr Bolsonaro praised Mr Dominghetti’s appearance before the inquiry.

Increasing pressure

Mr Bolsonaro has come under increasing political pressure after Mr Miranda revealed he had warned him about alleged corruption involving a contract to buy Covaxin vaccines from India. The deputy said Mr Bolsonaro told him the scheme was probably the work of former health minister Ricardo Barros, his administration’s current leader in congress.

There is no evidence the president took action against Mr Barros, a key figure in the congressional bloc whose votes are currently protecting him from having to face any of the 121 impeachment motions filed against him in the lower house. The health ministry suspended the Covaxin contract on Tuesday in light of the revelations.

Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, the vice-chairman of the inquiry, has charged Mr Bolsonaro before the supreme court with prevarication over his failure to take action on being informed of alleged criminal activity in the health ministry. On Friday Brazil’s federal prosecution service asked the court to open an investigation into the president’s actions.

In his testimony Mr Dominghetti also claimed an official in the health ministry asked him for a $400 million bribe to close a contract for 400 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine he was hawking for a Texas-based company that said it had access to supplies. So far 520,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Brazil.

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