Brazil’s High Court of Justice on Friday, sacked the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel from office.
His removal was accompanied with a police raid on his official residence in a probe into accusations he stole emergency funds to fight COVID-19. The raids also targeted Witzel’s wife and inner circle.
Among persons arrested was Pastor Everaldo, an evangelical preacher and leader of Witzel’s Christian Social Party (PSC).
Helicopters circled over the governor’s Laranjeiras Palace residence, starting at dawn as federal police executed a sweeping series of search and seizure orders and arrest warrants.
The court ruling suspends Witzel, 52, from office for at least 180 days as authorities investigate claims he took a reported 274.2 million reals ($50 million) in kickbacks.
“This criminal organization acted and continues acting to embezzle and launder funds in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, sacrificing the health and even lives of millions of people,” Justice Benedito Goncalves wrote in his ruling.
Prosecutors say Witzel, an erstwhile ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, set up a slush fund for bribes as soon as he took office in January 2019.
The investigation is mainly focused on allegations his administration stole emergency funds for field hospitals, ventilators and medicine to fight the new coronavirus.
“I’m being politically massacred because there are powerful interests who don’t want me governing this state,” Witzel said in a televised address from his official residence.
“The president has made extremely serious but frivolous accusations against me because he thinks I’m going to be a presidential candidate” in Brazil’s 2022 elections.”