In the first verdicts over riots by supporters of Brazil’s far-right ex-President Jair Bolsonaro, the Supreme Court sentenced two defendants Thursday to heavy jail terms on charges including an attempted coup.
The court sentenced 51-year-old Aecio Pereira and 43-year-old Thiago Mathar to 17 and 14 years in prison, respectively, for their role in the riots that overran the seat of power in Brasilia on January 8.
Overwhelming security, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the presidential palace, Congress and the high court itself that day, trashing the three buildings as they called on the military to oust leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“This was no walk in the park. It was a Sunday of devastation, a day of infamy,” said Chief Justice Rosa Weber.
The riots deeply shook a nation still divided by Lula’s narrow win over Bolsonaro in Brazil’s October 2022 presidential race, and drew inevitable comparisons to the invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 by supporters of then-president Donald Trump — Bolsonaro’s political role model.
Both defendants denied wrongdoing.
Pereira, reportedly a former employee of the Sao Paulo municipal sanitation company, made an obscenity-laced cell-phone video of himself at the Senate president’s table during the invasion, wearing a T-shirt marked “Military Intervention” and urging fellow Bolsonaro supporters to “take to the streets.”
Mathar was caught on security camera footage invading the presidential office suite, said the lead judge on the case, Alexandre de Moraes, citing the police investigation.
In both cases, eight of the court’s 11 judges ruled to convict on all five charges the defendants faced: violent uprising against the rule of law, attempted coup, armed criminal conspiracy, damaging a national heritage site and aggravated property destruction.
Three ruled to convict on only some of the charges, with lighter jail terms than those the pair were ultimately sentenced to.
The defendants had faced a maximum of 30 years in prison.
The court also imposed a collective fine of 30 million reais (around $6 million) on all those eventually convicted over the damages caused by the riots.
– ‘Overthrow the government’ –
Lawyers for Pereira told the court their client was unarmed and committed no acts of violence.
Defense attorney Sebastiao Coelho da Silva called the trial “politically motivated.”
Mathar’s lawyer told the court his client had only entered the presidential palace seeking shelter when clashes broke out between protesters and police.
“He wanted a better country, he wasn’t there to cause trouble,” he said.
The court ruled otherwise.
“The defendant… came here to participate in a coup, to overthrow a democratically elected government,” Moraes said in his ruling.
– First of hundreds –
In all, the Supreme Court plans to hear 232 cases involving the most serious alleged crimes committed during the riots.
The first trial, which opened Wednesday, is part of an initial batch of four cases before the high court. Justices began hearing the third Thursday afternoon.
Prosecutors are also investigating more than 1,000 others over the attacks, mostly on lesser charges that could be settled in plea bargains.
Investigators are meanwhile working to trace the financial backers behind the protests and establish whether police and army officers played a role. Seven Brasilia police commanders were arrested last month for dereliction of duty in connection with the riots.
Bolsonaro, who was in the United States at the time, faces investigation over accusations of inciting the riots.
The 68-year-old ex-army captain is also under investigation over various allegations of corruption and abuse of office.
In June, electoral authorities barred him from running for office for eight years over his unproven allegations that Brazil’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to large-scale fraud.
Bolsonaro denies wrongdoing.
“Some people are obsessed with trying to link me” to the events of January 8, he told newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo on Monday.