Brazil’s top court imposes 17-year sentence, in first case against rioters who stormed the capital

Aécio Lúcio Costa Pereira, 51, is the first of several participants in the uprising to be prosecuted

President Jair Bolsonaro
Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, storm the Supreme Court building in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 8, 2023Eraldo Peres (AP)

Brazil’s Supreme Court on Thursday handed a 17-year prison sentence to a supporter of former President Jair Bolsonaro who stormed top government offices on Jan. 8 in an alleged bid to forcefully restore the right-wing leader to office.

Aécio Lúcio Costa Pereira, 51, is the first of several participants in the uprising to be sentenced. Police arrested him on the day of the riot.

Cameras at the Senate filmed him wearing a shirt calling for a military coup and recording a video of himself praising others who had also broken into the building. Almost 1,500 people were detained that day, though most have been released.

Eight of the 11 justices of the court ruled that Pereira committed five crimes: criminal association; staging a coup; violent attack on the rule of law; qualified damage; and destruction of public assets. They sentenced him to 17 years in prison.

Pereira denied any wrongdoing and claimed he took part in a peaceful demonstration of unarmed people.

The rioters had refused to accept Bolsonaro’s defeat to leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose inauguration took place one week before the uprising. Lula, who also governed Brazil between 2003-2010, beat Bolsonaro by the narrowest margin in Brazil’s modern history.

The buildings of Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace were trashed by the pro-Bolsonaro rioters. They bypassed security barricades, climbed onto roofs, smashed windows and invaded all three buildings, which were largely vacant on the weekend of the incident.

Some of Brazil’s political animus was on display in the Supreme Court’s session Thursday, as the two Bolsonaro-appointed justices declined to convict the defendant on all five counts and pushed for light sentences.

One of them issued comments that other justices interpreted as implying that Lula’s administration may have intentionally let down its guard on the day that the government buildings were breached, and rejected such claims.

“There are many questions without an answer,” said Justice André Mendonça. “I cannot understand how the presidential palace was invaded the way that it was.”

Justice Alexandre de Moraes shot back while sitting beside Mendonça. “You come to the plenary of the Supreme Court that was destroyed and say there was a conspiracy of the government against itself. Spare us,” de Moraes said.

Lula has accused Bolsonaro of encouraging the uprising, as have many of Bolsonaro’s critics, and prosecutors are investigating his role in inciting the mayhem. The former president has denied any wrongdoing.

The incident recalled the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump. Politicians warned for months that a similar uprising was a possibility in Brazil, given that Bolsonaro had sown doubt about the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system — without any evidence.

In casting his vote on Thursday, Justice Cristiano Zanin said that participants in the Brasilia riot had been swept up in the moment.

“The members of the mob started having enormous influence on the others, which triggered a bandwagon effect,” he said.

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