Brazil's Bolsonaro rejects link to murder case, threatens TV network's license

BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday deplored a TV network’s report linking him with a former police officer accused of assassinating a Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman and threatened to cancel the broadcaster’s license.

FILE PHOTO: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends the UAE-Brazil Business Forum in Abu Dhabi, UAE, October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

TV Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network, reported on Tuesday that just hours before the March 2018 murder, the suspect was said to have told a doorman he was going to Bolsonaro’s house, gaining access to a gated community where he met instead with another former policeman accused of murdering the left-wing politician Marielle Franco.

The case led to widespread protests by Brazilians outraged to see a black, openly gay human rights advocate gunned down. Investigators arrested two former police officers, Ronnie Lessa and Elcio de Queiroz, nearly a year later and charged them with killing Franco in return for about $50,000. Their lawyers said they did not commit the crime.

Rio state prosecutors said later on Wednesday that the doorman had been mistaken. At a news conference, prosecutors said it was Lessa, who lived two doors down from Bolsonaro, who had answered the intercom and allowed Queiroz to enter.

Bolsonaro, who took office on Jan. 1, 2019, denied any connection to the case. He said he was in Brasilia the day of the murder voting in Congress, where he was then serving as a representative. TV Globo’s report also said Bolsonaro was in Brasilia the day of Franco’s murder.

The president accused the media and a former ally, Rio Governor Wilson Witzel, of conspiring to attack him and his family.

“This is rotten, villainous journalism by TV Globo,” an enraged Bolsonaro said in a live video on social media, recorded at 4 a.m. in a Riyadh hotel during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.

Bolsonaro went on to discuss the timeline for renewing the license of the network, which is part of Grupo Globo, the largest media group in Brazil and includes TV, publishing, internet content and music labels.

“We’ll talk in 2022,” Bolsonaro said. “You’d better hope I’m dead by then, because the renewal process won’t be persecution, but ... there won’t be any workarounds for you or anyone else.”

Related Coverage

The president’s office said it would not comment on Bolsonaro’s remarks about renewing Globo’s license.

In a statement, Globo expressed regret about Bolsonaro’s comments and said its aim was to inform the Brazilian public. Referring to its license renewal, it said that it had complied with its obligations during the past 54 years.

TV Globo said the doorman to Bolsonaro’s gated community in Rio told police that someone in the Bolsonaro residence identified as “Mr. Jair” confirmed the visitor on the day of Franco’s murder and then waved off the doorman’s concern that the car had gone to a different house.

“It looks like either the doorman lied or someone induced him to commit a false testimony,” Bolsonaro said.

He accused Witzel of leaking details from a confidential investigation to the press to “destroy the Bolsonaro family” before the 2022 presidential elections.

Witzel denied any political interference with the investigation. “I deeply regret the untimely reaction of President Jair Bolsonaro,” the governor said in a statement.

Bolsonaro’s justice minister, Sergio Moro, asked Brazil’s top public prosecutor Augusto Aras to investigate the doorman’s allegation, saying he might have given false testimony, either in error or as part of a wider conspiracy to implicate the president, according to the request made public by the ministry.

Aras’ office, known as the PGR, said federal prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro would investigate whether there was an obstruction of justice or false testimony in the information given by the doorman.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

The PGR added that information allegedly linking Bolsonaro to the murder case had been filed but remained under judicial seal.

Bolsonaro has denied knowing Lessa, his neighbor in the gated community in Barra de Tijuca, an affluent beachside neighborhood in southern Rio de Janeiro.

Police accused Lessa of firing the 13 shots that killed the councilwoman and her driver in execution-style murders. Queiroz was accused of driving the hitman’s car.

It is not the first time Bolsonaro has been linked with the suspects. Shortly after their arrests, a photo of Queiroz circulated on social media, wearing a police T-shirt, with his arm around Bolsonaro.

Brazilian news outlets reported the photo was taken from Queiroz’s Facebook profile. Reuters was unable to locate the profile or verify the authenticity of the photo. At the time, Bolsonaro told reporters he had taken photos with thousands of police officers as he campaigned for the presidency.

Reporting by Pedro Fonseca, Gabriela Mello, Anthony Boadle, Rodrigo Viga Gaier, Stephen Eisenhammer, Ricardo Brito; editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler