Brazilian ex-billionaire Batista surrenders to Rio police

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Fallen tycoon Eike Batista, who personified Brazil's economic boom and once aimed to be the world's richest man, had his head shaved and was incarcerated Monday after surrendering to face corruption charges.

Batista, who rose to become his country's wealthiest person and number seven in the world, with a fortune of $34.5 billion reported by Bloomberg in 2012, flew in from New York and walked immediately to a waiting police SUV.

The 60-year-old former oil and mining magnate is alleged to have paid a $16.5 million bribe to ex-Rio de Janeiro state governor Sergio Cabral, already behind bars for allegedly taking bribes over World Cup and Olympics infrastructure projects.

As a brash, big-spending entrepreneur with a playboy lifestyle, Batista symbolized Brazil's surge to economic power under then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

His downfall represents a new landmark in a series of sprawling but interconnected corruption scandals enveloping much of Brazil's elite, including Lula himself.

Globo television broadcast extensive live coverage of Batista's return to the country.

He was sent first to the Ary Franco prison in Rio, which like many in Brazil is seriously overcrowded, before transferring to the much bigger Bangu complex.

Many corruption suspects in Brazil benefit from a law that puts people with university diplomas in better conditions.

However, Batista never graduated, meaning he should experience the gritty -- sometimes dangerous -- reality facing ordinary Brazilian detainees. Television footage showed that he had his head shaved before arriving in Bangu.

- Knock at the door -

Police first came knocking at Batista's luxury Rio home last week. The cross-border police agency Interpol issued a "red notice" alert when it emerged he was abroad.

Late Sunday, he told Globo television from Kennedy International Airport in New York that he had decided to fly back voluntarily.

"I am returning to respond to the judiciary, as is my duty," he said, promising to "clear things up."

A former speedboat racer who reached seventh place on Forbes magazine's rich list in 2012 and even vowed to eventually become the world's richest person, Batista indulged heavily in his taste for the high life.

He had a palatial Rio residence and loved showing off his $500,000 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, planes and a helicopter.

But his empire, boosted by billions of dollars in loans from the Brazilian national development bank, was hit by plunging commodity prices and abruptly unravelled with the collapse of his oil company OGX in 2013.

- President faces allegations -

These are nervous days for Brazil's once untouchable elite.

Demonstrating the judiciary's resolve Monday, Supreme Court President Carmen Lucia confirmed she would allow the use of testimony by executives from the Odebrecht construction company in a massive bribery and embezzlement case centered on state oil company Petrobras.

The construction executives gave a mountain of what is expected to be politically explosive evidence as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors.

The contents of the evidence remain secret, but leaks have pointed to current President Michel Temer being accused of taking millions of dollars in illegal donations.

Already the roster of the accused or charged in the Petrobras case reads like a Who's Who of the Brazilian establishment, also including Lula, major senators and the former speaker of the lower house of Congress.

The Supreme Court president's decision to accept the testimony was seen as an important reaffirmation of the judiciary's determination to pursue the case after the death in a plane crash this month of Teori Zavascki, the court justice who had been overseeing the matter.

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