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Net tightens on Bolsonaro as police seize passport in coup probe

By Lisandra Paraguassu, Ricardo Brito and Gabriel Stargardter

BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazilian police on Thursday confiscated former President Jair Bolsonaro's passport and accused him of editing a draft decree to overturn election results, pressuring military chiefs to join a coup attempt and plotting to jail a Supreme Court justice.

The bombshell allegations are the result of a probe into Bolsonaro and his inner circle for allegedly plotting a military coup after his electoral loss to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2022. Thursday's operation included search warrants against four former ministers and the arrest of four former aides.

The confiscation of Bolsonaro's passport augurs badly for the former leader, a far-right populist often likened to former U.S. President Donald Trump.

A federal police official directly involved in Thursday's raids said the evidence against Bolsonaro was strong, adding that the seizure of his passport offers benefits of an arrest, such as mitigating flight risk, without creating as much noise.

"As he is a powerful political figure, it is better to wait for the indictment and a conviction before arresting him," said the police source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "A precautionary arrest would open up a lot of room for allegations of political persecution."

Bolsonaro was at his beach house in Rio de Janeiro state when police arrived early on Thursday morning, demanding the document. Brazil's federal police are now in possession of the passport, which was in the capital Brasilia, Bolsonaro family spokesman Fabio Wajngarten said on social media.

According to the decision by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes that triggered Thursday's operation, Bolsonaro in November 2022 received a draft decree prepared by his aides to overturn electoral results and issue arrest warrants for Moraes, fellow Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes and Senate leader Rodrigo Pacheco.

At Bolsonaro's request, the draft decree was modified, but the arrest of Moraes and a requirement for new elections remained, said the court order, citing police investigations.

After tweaking the decree, Bolsonaro summoned military commanders and pressured them to support a putsch, according to the police account, based on phone records and plea bargain testimony from the ex-president's former aide-de-camp.

Bolsonaro's lawyer, Paulo Bueno, had no immediate comment.

"I left the government more than a year ago and I'm still suffering relentless persecution," Bolsonaro told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper on Thursday. "Forget about me. Someone else is running the country now."

Bolsonaro has already been ruled politically ineligible until 2030 for spreading election falsehoods, and faces several other criminal probes that could land him in jail. He has denied wrongdoing and calls the investigations politically motivated.

POWERFUL ALLIES TARGETED

Thursday's operation targeted some of Bolsonaro's closest allies - until recently among Brazil's most powerful men.

Search warrants were issued for properties linked to Walter Braga Netto, Bolsonaro's former running mate; Augusto Heleno, his former national security adviser; former Defense Minister Paulo Nogueira Batista and former Justice Minister Anderson Torres, among others.

The president of Bolsonaro's right-wing political party, Valdemar Costa Neto, was arrested when a search of his Brasilia home turned up an unregistered firearm, according to sources.

Bolsonaro's former international affairs adviser Filipe Martins was one of four other people arrested, the sources said. A lawyer for Martins said he was awaiting access to the warrant and supporting evidence before commenting.

Reuters attempted to contact other targets of the police operation and their lawyers, but received no immediate response.

The federal police said in a statement that the suspects were accused of participating in "a criminal organization that acted in an attempted coup d'etat" aimed at "keeping the then-President of the Republic in power."

Lula said the coup attempt had to be investigated to keep it from happening again.

"Without Bolsonaro there would have been no coup attempt," Lula said in a radio interview.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito; Writing by Anthony Boadle and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes, Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O'Brien)