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Brazil military leaders told police Bolsonaro plotted to remain in power despite election defeat

SAO PAULO (AP) — Two top Brazilian military leaders declared to police that former President Jair Bolsonaro presented them a plan for him to remain in power after the 2022 election he lost, but both refused and warned him they would arrest him if he tried it, according to judicial documents released Friday.

The testimonies of Bolsonaro’s former Army and Air Force commanders to police, and released by the Supreme Court, include the first direct mentions of the right-wing leader as actively participating in a conspiracy to ignore the results of the October 2022 election won by his rival, current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The statements by military commanders during Bolsonaro's term add to his legal woes as prosecutors seek to find links between the far-right leader and the Jan. 8, 2023 riots that trashed government buildings in the capital Brasilia one week after Lula's inauguration.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, a frequent target of Bolsonaro and the chairman of the investigation, authorized the release of the documents.

A federal police report said former army commander Marco Antônio Freire Gomes testified that he and other top military leaders attended several last-minute and unscheduled meetings at the presidential palace after the second round of the elections “in which then-President Jair Bolsonaro offered possibilities of using legal tools... regarding the electoral process.”

Gen. Freire Gomes told federal police that in one of the gatherings Bolsonaro told the three commanders of his military and his then-Defense Secretary Paulo Sergio Nogueira he wanted to create a commission to “investigate the confirmation and the legality of the electoral process.” He added other tools could be used, such as issuing a decree to declare a state of siege.

Freire Gomes said he rejected the idea from the start and told Bolsonaro that such a move “could end in the legal responsibility of the then-president,” according to the federal police document.

The Brazilian general also declared to police he “always made it clear to the then-president that, under the conditions at the time, there was no possibility of reversing the result of the elections from a military standpoint.”

Former Air Force commander Brig. Carlos de Almeida Baptista Júnior also told federal police he rejected Bolsonaro’s electoral moves. He added that he believes that Gen. Freire Gomes’ rebuke was key to stopping Bolsonaro from seeking to reverse the elections result.

“If the commander (Freire Gomes) had agreed, possibly, a coup d’etat attempt would have taken place,” the federal police document quotes Baptista Jr. as saying.

“Gen. Freire Gomes said that if such move was attempted he would have to arrest the president,” the police document reads.

Baptista Jr. also told the federal police that Fleet Admiral Almir Garnier, the former commander of Brazil’s Navy, “said he would put his troops at Jair Bolsonaro’s disposal,” according to the document.

Bolsonaro has denied that he and his supporters attempted a coup when rioters assaulted government buildings a year ago.

“What is a coup? It is tanks on the streets, weapons, conspiracy. None of that happened in Brazil,” he said during a demonstration last month.

Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Fabio Wajngarten, said on X, formerly Twitter, he never heard about any plot to keep the former president in office or threats from military commanders to put him in jail if he tried.

Without naming the former commanders, Wajngarten said: “They are friends of whoever holds power. Their insignificance is their biggest and best trait. Sycophants. Dazzled by microphones, waiters and drivers. Mediocre.”

Bolsonaro started raising unfounded questions about Brazil’s electronic voting process years before the vote, and those efforts to sow doubts accelerated in the lead up to the election that catapulted Lula back to the office he held between 2003-2010.

Gleisi Hoffmann, the chairwoman of Lula's Workers' Party, said the revelations by military leaders proved that “the president's victory was fundamental to keep democracy” in Brazil.

“We are on the right side of history,” Hoffmann said on her social media channels.

Some Bolsonaro allies in Congress have spoken about a bill to pardon those involved in the Jan. 8 riots. A few of them belong to his Liberal Party, whose chairman Valdemar Costa Neto also spoke to federal police. Neto claimed, according to the documents, he only questioned electoral results because he was under pressure from the former president.

Top figures in the military giving lengthy testimonies to Federal Police is an ominous omen for Bolsonaro.

“It’s one of the first big signs that Bolsonaro is going to stand alone and lose much of the military support he had,” said Sérgio Praça, a political scientist from the Rio de Janeiro-based Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and university.

But the testimonies are unlikely to have a significant impact on public opinion, said Manoel Galdino, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro loyalists will not be swayed by new evidence, while many others are already convinced that the former president was involved in plotting a coup.

“There has been no major new revelation to the point of changing Bolsonaro’s status or the role he will play in the October municipal elections, for example,” said Galdino.

Bolsonaro is barred from running for office until 2030 due to two convictions of abuse of power, but he remains active in Brazilian politics as the main adversary for left-of-center Lula. As this year’s mayoral elections loom, candidates have split between the two leaders.

According to Brazil’s Penal Code, attempting a coup carries a sentence of minimum four years and a maximum of 12. Some of Bolsonaro’s advocates argue he never tried to do that, and claim there are no documents signed by him with orders that ultimately would have led to keeping him in office.

Cezar Ziliotto, a constitutional law attorney, said the testimonies of the two former military commanders are the most relevant pieces yet to determine Bolsonaro’s role prior to the riots. He believes their statements will be part of the likely charges against the former president to be delivered to the Supreme Court within months.

“These are two people who were high up and suggest that he had the intent, possible leadership, a role in the coordination and a clear participation in questioning the results of the election,” Ziliotto said. “But now there is some confirmation that there was a plot."

Even though Bolsonaro never issued a decree to put tanks in the streets, he is still in serious legal jeopardy because of all the other evidence against him, Ziliotto added.

“If he had signed a decree that would have been biggest possible evidence Bolsonaro was linked to it. But this about much more than a draft being signed or not. There's planning, preparatory acts, a lot of evidence to look at,” the attorney said.