Bolsonaro, his wife keep silent during testimony in luxury gift scandal

By September 1, 2023

São Paulo, Brazil – Former president Jair Bolsonaro kept silent during testimony to the Federal Police this Thursday in the investigation about the illegal sale of jewelry, watches and ornate statues that he received on trips abroad. Police suspect that Bolsonaro ordered his assistants to sell the luxury gifts abroad and pass the money on to him. 

Under Brazilian law, a gift received by a president on an official trip does not belong to the president, but to the Brazilian state. The president is only allowed to keep what are called “very personal gifts,” meaning small items of little monetary value, like flags, clothes and letters. Any object of value must be registered and included into the public collection.

According to the police, some of the gifts Bolsonaro received during his term (2019 — 2022) were never registered nor entered into the public collection. Bolsonaro went to the police for the first time this Thursday in relation to the case. His wife and former first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, was to testify as well and she also chose to remain silent. 

According to the couple’s lawyers, the silence strategy was taken because they believe that the Supreme Court is not the appropriate court to hear the case. That’s because the Supreme Court is mainly responsible for prosecuting officials holding public office. As Bolsonaro is no longer president, his defense thinks the investigation should be sent to the Common Justice. 

In Brazil, the common citizen is judged by the Common Justice. The authorities, while holding public office, such as deputies, senators and even the president, are judged by the Supreme Court.

Palm tree statue that Bolsonaro received from Saudi Arabia is among the gifts investigated by the Federal Police. Image courtesy of Alan Santos

Therefore, Bolsonaro and Michelle were instructed to remain silent, without answering any questions from the Federal Police. Two others investigated in the alleged scheme, Bolsonaro’s former communications officer Fábio Wajngarten and his assistant Marcelo Câmara, also adopted the same strategy in their testimonies.

Meanwhile, another main target of the Federal Police’s investigation, Bolsonaro’s assistant Lieutenant Colonel Mauro Cid, is allegedly collaborating with the investigators, according to the local press. Cid has been accused by investigators as being the person responsible for selling the jewelry and watches abroad — in places like the United States — and transferring the money to Bolsonaro. 

Cid’s testimony is considered essential to prove the sale of luxury gifts. Cid has been in prison since May, accused of falsifying Covid-19 vaccination cards for Bolsonaro and his 12-year-old daughter.

The gift gate

On August 11, Federal Police conducted an operation to further investigate the case. Investigators say that Cid was responsible for negotiating the sale of some of the items, and they suspect that the profits were passed on to Bolsonaro. 

Evidence reported by investigators suggests that some of the negotiations were conducted online, mainly via email. For example, police reported that two luxury watches suspected to be linked to Bolsnaro were sold to a U.S. company in 2022 for USD $68,000. 

When police began to suspect that the watches may have been sold illegally, the Federal Audit Court (TCU), the entity responsible for monitoring public spending, ordered, in March 2023, Bolsonaro to return the gifts to their custody until the end of the investigation.

Cid allegedly attempted to “buy back” the watches to avoid detection. Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef, traveled to the United States in March to recover the objects. Police reported that Wassef had to pay above the original selling price to get the watches back.  

Investigators also allege that Bolsonaro himself committed a crime while in office. The former president allegedly flew to the U.S. on December 30, two days before the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, carrying two sets of jewelry and a set of statues he’d been gifted during previous trips abroad.  

The statues, one of a boat, the other a palm tree, were allegedly given to Bolsonaro on a trip to Bahrain in 2021. A set of Chopard jewelry, including a pen, a ring, a buttonhole, an Arabic rosary and a watch, was allegedly given to the former president by Saudi Arabia. 

Investigators say that the jewelry kit was announced by a luxury auction company in New York in January 2023, with an estimated value of USD $120,000. The jewels were not sold however, and Cid reportedly organized a “rescue” operation to retrieve the items from the auction house, and then mailed them to his father’s home in Florida.