Brazil Supreme Court draws fire for silencing critics

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s Supreme Court drew fire on Tuesday for silencing its critics with a confidential criminal case targeting the press, pundits on social media and even a retired Army general close to President Jair Bolsonaro.

Chief Justice Jose Antonio Dias Toffoli opened the investigation last month into misinformation, slander and threats affecting the “honor and security” of the top court, according to court documents seen by Reuters.

On Monday, the court ordered news website O Antagonista and associated magazine Crusoe to withdraw a story published on Friday that alleged a link between Toffoli and players in a long-running graft scandal.

Police on Tuesday executed search and seizure warrants issued by the court targeting outspoken critics on social media such as former cavalry officer Paulo Chagas, who campaigned with Bolsonaro last year and called the Supreme Court soft on graft.

The case is under seal and the court declined to comment.

After five years of corruption investigations that have jailed former presidents and billionaire business leaders, the controversy over the Supreme Court’s actions added to skepticism about even Brazil’s most prestigious institutions.

The court’s offensive drew immediate blowback from newspaper editorials, prosecutors and, indirectly, Bolsonaro himself.

Newspaper O Globo said in a Tuesday editorial that the order to take down the Antagonista/Crusoé story was “of a seriousness without precedents in democratic times.”

Brazil’s top prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, told the court she was closing the investigation opened by Toffoli on the grounds that the Supreme Court could not both investigate and judge a criminal case.

Bolsonaro posted a message to Twitter on Tuesday defending freedom of expression.

“I believe in Brazil and its institutions and I respect the autonomy of the (branches of government), as written in our Constitution. They are indispensable principles for a democracy. That said, my position will always be in favor of freedom of expression, a legitimate and inviolable right,” he wrote.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Ricardo Brito; Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo; Editing by Brad Haynes and Sonya Hepinstall