Jair Bolsonaro's justice minister resigns in Brazil, accuses president of interference

Brazil's Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who became popular as a crusader against corruption, resigned on Friday, alleging political interference in the federal police force. He made the announcement after President Jair Bolsonaro changed the head of the federal police in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

Sergio Moro says Bolsonaro fired police chief without cause, wanted direct line into police probes

Brazil's Justice Minister Sergio Moro gives a news conference to announce his resignation in Brasilia, Brazil on Friday. Moro made the announcement after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro changed the head of the country's federal police. (Eraldo Peres/The Associated Press)

Brazil's Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who became popular as a crusader against corruption, resigned on Friday, alleging political interference in the federal police force. He made the announcement after President Jair Bolsonaro changed the head of the federal police in the midst of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Federal police general director Mauricio Valeixo worked closely with Moro in the sprawling Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption probe until the end of 2018 and followed him when Moro joined Bolsonaro's new administration. The graft investigation ensnared scores of politicians and businessmen throughout Latin America, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the CEO of construction giant Odebrecht, and transformed Moro into a folk hero.

Moro told reporters that he warned Bolsonaro on Thursday that removing the head of the federal police without cause would amount to political interference. Bolsonaro did so anyway, without consulting Moro, the minister said, adding he took it as evidence he was no longer wanted in the position.

"The general director could have been changed as long as there was a consistent cause. There was not a consistent cause," Moro said. "Political interference that could create inappropriate relationships between the general director or superintendents and the president is something I can't agree with."

In recent days, Bolsonaro had called for Moro to reopen Brazil's borders with Paraguay and Uruguay during the pandemic, as the Brazilian leader has repeatedly said he wants economic activity to resume, but the minister did not agree.

Throughout it all, Moro's place in the cabinet helped secure the administration's base of support and the appearance of respect for the rule of law. Moro cast doubt on that reputation on Friday, saying that the claim by the presidency that Valeixo had tendered his own resignation were untrue.

"The president expressly told me more than once that he wanted someone with whom he has personal contact, someone he could call, get information from, get intelligence reports, whether from a director or a superintendent," Moro said. "It is really not the federal police's role to provide that information. Investigations have to be preserved."

Bolsonaro, right, is seen with son Flavio on Nov. 21, 2019, in Brasilia. Flavio Bolsonaro has been accused of accepting kickbacks, but strenuously denies the allegations. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

There has been speculation in the Brazilian media over whether Bolsonaro is concerned about investigations hitting too close to home. Rio de Janeiro state prosecutors in December raided properties of the former staff of Flavio Bolsonaro, the president's son and now a federal senator, as well as relatives of the president's ex-wife, as part of a corruption probe.

Moro, who is hailed by many Brazilians while seen by others as an anti-left zealot, was also key in the process that led to the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Several of the Car Wash investigations in the southern city of Curitiba involved politicians linked to that administration. He left the court in November 2018 after Bolsonaro's invitation to join his administration.

"Moro's resignation is a seismic event in Brazilian politics," Ilona Szabo, executive director of the Igarape Institute that's focused on public security, said in an emailed statement. "His departure signals a dangerous new phase for Brazil. It amounts to a 'coup' against democracy because the autonomy of the federal police [and rule of law] is an essential foundation for democratic governance."

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Bolsonaro, who was elected in large part due to his law-and-order platform, said in November that he wouldn't have reached the presidency had Moro not "fulfilled his mission" as a judge.

The former judge was Bolsonaro's most widely known and popular minister, with approval ratings considerably higher than the president's. Moro has often been cited as a contender for higher office, whether as a Supreme Court justice, vice-president or even president. Since he became minister in January 2019, however, he has had difficulties with Bolsonaro and with politicians in Brasilia, the capital.

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His anti-crime legislation, which he deemed to be a cornerstone of his work, was largely softened in Congress.

The minister's standing also suffered after online news outlet the Intercept Brasil started publishing a series of reports based on leaked messages that suggested he had interfered unduly in the prosecution of several Car Wash investigations, including the one into da Silva. He has always denied the content of those conversations are true.

Bolsonaro has bounced from crisis to crisis during his administration, from his attacks on the media to his dismissal of last year's raging Amazon fires and dust-ups with foreign leaders.

The political row comes as the coronavirus pandemic begins to gather steam in Brazil, where Bolsonaro has faced widespread criticism for his handling of the outbreak.

The president last week fired his health minister after clashing with him over how to fight the coronavirus, and again called for states to end stay-at-home orders that he said were hurting the economy.

Bolsonaro has faced nightly protests from Brazilians banging pots from their windows over his handling of the outbreak.

A record daily total of 407 people died from the virus in Brazil within 24 hours, the Health Ministry said on Thursday, with 3,735 new confirmed cases. So far, 3,313 people have died from the virus in Brazil, with nearly 50,000 cases confirmed.

With files from CBC News and Reuters