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Gifted jewelry from Saudi Arabia entangles Brazil's ex-President Bolsonaro

The jewelry with diamonds gifted to former President Jair Bolsonaro and his wife Michelle Bolsonaro by the Saudi government, which was seized by customs officials, is seen at São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport, in Guarulhos, Brazil, on Tuesday.
Amanda Perobelli
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Reuters
The jewelry with diamonds gifted to former President Jair Bolsonaro and his wife Michelle Bolsonaro by the Saudi government, which was seized by customs officials, is seen at São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport, in Guarulhos, Brazil, on Tuesday.

RIO DE JANEIRO — It was quite a gift: a diamond necklace, matching earrings, a watch and a ring, all valued at $3.2 million.

Brazilian customs agents found the jewelry in the backpack of a government aide traveling with the country's then-energy minister in October 2021. The minister and aide were returning from a mining conference in Saudi Arabia.

The jewels were reportedly a gift from the Saudi government to Michelle Bolsonaro, the wife of Brazil's then-President Jair Bolsonaro, and have been held by customs officials since then.

Brazilian officials are investigating whether the former president broke the law trying to bring the high-value gifts into Brazil without declaring them. And Jair Bolsonaro will eventually be subpoenaed, Justice Minister Flavio Dino told reporters this week. Bolsonaro has denied doing anything illegal.

Bolsonaro stands next to his wife Michelle during a military officers promotion ceremony, at Planalto Palace in Brasília, on Aug. 4, 2022.
Evaristo SA / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Bolsonaro stands next to his wife Michelle during a military officers promotion ceremony, at Planalto Palace in Brasília, on Aug. 4, 2022.

It is the latest legal drama engulfing Bolsonaro, who has been taking residence in Florida since days before his presidency ended in January. Brazil's justice minister said he would not rule out seeking international cooperation to bring the former president back to testify in Brazilian court.

Finance Minister Fernando Haddad said the jewelry should have been declared at customs. "Nobody can just get a present of 16 million reals," he said, citing the estimated value in the Brazilian currency. Procedures must be followed, and they weren't, he added.

Travelers to Brazil have to declare and pay taxes on goods worth more than $1,000, which the former Brazilian officials reportedly failed to do.

Bolsonaro has said he never intended to keep the jewels. "I'm getting crucified for a present I never received," he recently told a Brazilian TV station. "I've never abused my authority."

And the former first lady went on social media to slam the news media over the reports and said she didn't know about the luxury items.

However, the ex-president later acknowledged there was a second case containing a ring, watch, cufflinks, a rosary and a pen. Those items apparently did get past Brazilian customs officials, and local media reported their estimated worth of more than $75,000.

"A straightforward case"

Bolsonaro left Brazil right before incoming leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office. Bolsonaro, a far right nationalist, never conceded defeat to Lula in last year's close election.

Bolsonaro faces multiple other investigations and scrutiny back home, including over whether he incited mobs of his supporters to attack government buildings in Brasília on Jan. 8.

A lawyer for the ex-president sent a letter on Monday to Brazil's Federal Police saying Bolsonaro is willing to cooperate in the investigation into the jewels, according to the news site Folha. Contacted by NPR, the lawyer said Bolsonaro acted according to the law.

But Daniela Campello, a political scientist at Brazil's Fundação Getulio Vargas think tank, said clearly that's not true, since no taxes were paid on the jewelry. "I think it is a very straightforward case that everybody understands. It is a lot of money," Campello told NPR.

She said not only does the scandal implicate the former president, but also complicates the Michelle Bolsonaro's political future. She "is supposed to be a new leader of the far right in Brazil. So, I think that is very damaging for both Bolsonaro and his wife," Campello added.

Every day a new revelation in the scandal is making headlines — including a set of videos recently released by the GloboNews TV channel. The footage shows a Bolsonaro aide trying to persuade a customs official to release the jewelry. It was recorded just one day before Bolsonaro left for Florida and was reportedly one of eight attempts his officials made to try to retrieve the goods.

Bolsonaro's growing legal troubles are complicating his return to Brazil, which the former president said could be as early as this month.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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