Pandemic probe: Brazil police raid Rio governor's residence

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Military police gather at the official residence of Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Brazil's Federal Police raided the governor's official residence on Tuesday to carry out searches, part of an investigation into the embezzlement of public resources in the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian police targeted a staunch opponent of President Jair Bolsonaro's push to lift measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in one of the world's disease hot spots, searching the residence of the Rio de Janeiro state governor on Tuesday.

The federal prosecutor´s office said in a statement that Gov. Wilson Witzel, a former federal judge, was personally targeted by the 12 search and seizure warrants in Rio and Sao Paulo states. An ongoing investigation pointed to irregularities in contracts awarded for the construction of emergency field hospitals in Rio, and involved health officials, police said in a statement.

Witzel has promised eight emergency field hospitals, but only one, near the Maracaná football stadium, has opened.

Witzel expressed indignation at what he called “an act of violence against the democratic state,” and accused the president of being behind the operation.

“An act of political persecution is beginning in this country,” Witzel told reporters. “What happened to me will happen to other governors considered to be enemies.”

While Brazil becomes the new global epicenter for the pandemic, Brazil’s federal and state governments remain at odds over how best to confront the virus.

Bolsonaro has openly challenged many governors’ measures for containing the virus' spread, with Witzel a primary target. The Brazilian leader has accused governors of inciting panic among the population with what he claims are excessive stay-at-home recommendations and restrictions on commerce that he says will wreck the economy and produce worse hardship than the virus.

Bolsonaro, for his part, has been accused of attempting to improperly meddle with the federal police for political or personal ends, a claim made by former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro when he resigned last month. Moro has said Bolsonaro told him on multiple occasions that he wanted to replace the head of the federal police with someone who could facilitate access to investigations and intelligence reports — allegations at the heart of an investigation the Supreme Court authorized on April 27.