Trial of Brazil’s alleged 8 January insurrectionists opens in supreme court

The hate-filled vandals behind the “dastardly putschist attack” on Latin America’s largest democracy must be brought to justice, a supreme court judge has declared as Brazil held the first trial connected to Brasília’s 8 January insurrection.

Thousands of followers of the ex-president Jair Bolsonaro marauded through Brazil’s capital on 8 January this year in what his leftwing successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, called an attempted coup d’état. Nearly 2,000 militant Bolsonaro supporters were arrested in the days after the presidential palace, supreme court and congress were ransacked by Bolsonarista radicals outraged at his defeat in last October’s election.

On Wednesday the first four of those alleged rioters went on trial in a highly symbolic hearing in the refurbished supreme court building, which was comprehensively trashed during January’s uprising.

Related: ‘They were in ecstasy’: how Bolsonaro mob’s orgy of violence rocked Brasília

The supreme court judge Alexandre de Moraes described how rightwing insurrectionists had rampaged through the heart of Brazilian democracy, “showing utter contempt for the republic and imbued with the audacity of ignorance”.

The rioters – who Moraes claimed were “possessed by an irrational, almost pathological hatred” – caused more than 15m reais ($3m/£2.4m) of damage as they executed a South American version of the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol. “But let me be clear: they did not destroy the spirit of democracy,” the supreme court judge said.

“The enemies of freedom should know that, in the hallowed ground of this court, the permanently cultivated democratic system remains unshaken.”

Brazil’s deputy attorney general, Carlos Frederico Santos, struck a similarly defiant note as he opened the prosecution’s case against 51-year-old Aécio Lúcio Costa Pereira who is accused of being part of the “armed and anti-democratic mob” behind January’s attack.

“It is important to note … that Brazil long ago ceased to be a banana republic,” Santos said. “We have turned the page on coups d’état in our history.”

Pereira and the other three defendants – Thiago de Assis Mathar, Moacir José dos Santos and Matheus Lima de Carvalho Lázaro – stand accused of offenses which could land them in jail for up to 30 years. They are: armed criminal association, violent abolition of the democratic rule of law, coup d’état and causing damage to public property with the use of an inflammable substance.

All four deny the charges and say they went to Brasília to take part in a peaceful protest. More than 200 other suspects are expected to face trial in the coming months while more than 1,000 are being investigated on lesser charges.

Pereira’s lawyers rejected the accusations against him at Wednesday’s trial, which the newspaper O Globo called a historic chance to punish a “despicable crime against democracy”.

Sebastião Coelho da Silva denied his client – who filmed himself storming the senate building in a T-shirt demanding a military intervention – was a dangerous or violent man.

In fact, Silva claimed one of the only pieces of evidence against Pereira was a video filmed on the ramp leading into congress in which the defendant announced plans to demonstrate his dislike of politicians by emptying his bowels inside. “Did he do [a poo]? Did this materialise?” the lawyer asked the court, before replying: “No, it didn’t happen.”

Silva also ridiculed claims that January’s turmoil was an attempted coup, comparable to the recent overthrow of Niger’s government. “Are we really going to write down in history that there was a coup attempt without any weapons,” the lawyer said. “Did anyone have a rifle?”

In parallel to the 8 January trials, federal police continue to pursue the political masterminds and financial backers of one of the worst outbreaks of political violence in modern Brazilian history.

Many suspect Bolsonaro – an avowed admirer of Brazil’s former military dictatorship and the Chilean autocrat Augusto Pinochet – was himself involved in instigating the violence. This week Lula claimed Bolsonaro was “involved up to his teeth” in the alleged conspiracy to topple his government. The ex-president denies such claims.

However, Bolsonaro’s former aide-de-camp, Lt Col Mauro Cid, recently agreed a plea bargain deal with police investigators under which he must provide information about several criminal investigations, including into the 8 January attacks. Media reports suggest Lt Col Cid’s revelations are likely to complicate the lives of Bolsonaro, as well as several key allies and relatives.

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