Rio de Janeiro governor suspended over alleged COVID-19-related graft

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A Brazilian court temporarily removed Rio de Janeiro state’s governor from office on Friday over alleged graft in the purchase of medical supplies and services to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.

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A raft of investigations have been opened in Brazil and other Latin American countries, including Peru, Ecuador and Mexico, into alleged corruption related to the response to the coronavirus outbreak in the world’s hardest-hit region.

The 180-day suspension handed down by the Superior Court of Justice in Brasilia is a major blow for Governor Wilson Witzel, a self-proclaimed law-and-order politician who rose from virtual obscurity to win the governorship of Brazil’s second-most important state in 2018.

Elected as an ally of president Jair Bolsonaro, Witzel has become an increasingly vocal critic of the right-wing country-chief. The disagreements increased after Rio’s state authorities advanced on investigations targeting alleged money laundering involving the president’s sons and former staff members. In a statement to reporters, the governor called his removal by a federal body a politically-motivated “circus” led by a public prosecutor with ties to the Bolsonaro family, based on false testimony by his former health secretary.

The suspension comes on top of impeachment proceedings against Witzel over the alleged graft.

Witzel’s lawyers said they were surprised by the court’s decision and were awaiting documents detailing the accusations against him.

In conjunction with the court decision, federal police arrested nine people and carried out 83 raids on associates of Witzel on Friday as part of their graft investigation, prosecutors said.

In an earlier operation in May, federal prosecutors alleged Witzel and his wife Helena led a sprawling criminal operation in which her law firm was used to receive payment from a company that won state coronavirus contracts, according to federal court documents seen by Reuters.

At the time, Witzel said he was innocent, his wife said the operation was politically motivated and her law firm said police searches found nothing that could prove the allegations.

One of those arrested on Friday was Everaldo Pereira, an evangelical pastor who is head of the Social Christian Party, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. A high-profile conservative, Pereira has been close to Bolsonaro, baptizing him in the Jordan River in 2016.

The Social Christian Party said in a statement that Pereira has always been available to clarify authorities’ questions.

Reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier, in Rio, and Lisandra Paraguassu, in Brasilia; Writing by Carolina Mandl and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Paul Simao and Alistair Bell