Dispute Over Mysterious Saudi Jewelry Worth $3 Million Haunts Bolsonaro

(Bloomberg) — A dispute over $3 million worth of jewelry allegedly from Saudi Arabia is set to present another headache for former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro when he returns home from his US vacation.

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Brazil’s national controller on Tuesday started probing the case, which involved a cache of jewelry — including a diamond necklace, earrings and a watch made by the Swiss brand Chopard. Bolsonaro’s former Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque confirmed over the weekend that his delegation brought the items into the country — now run by leftist leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — as a gift from the Saudi government to Bolsonaro and his wife, Michelle, without declaring them to customs agents.

The country’s federal police also launched an investigation at the request of the justice ministry.

The case came to public attention on March 3 when newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reported that Brazilian customs officials seized jewelry found inside a suitcase carried by an aide to Albuquerque as they returned from an official trip to the Middle East last October. Brazilian law requires travelers to declare goods worth more than $1,000 for tax purposes, but Albuquerque’s team failed to do so.

Public outrage has been growing in Brazil as details of the case emerge. Brazilian officials aren’t allowed to keep the most valuable gifts they receive, and have to place them in public collections maintained by the state. The investigation will seek to discover whether Bolsonaro or his associates were attempting to smuggle the jewelry into Brazil, and if they sought to shield the gift from entering the president’s official collection, which would make it government property, according to the justice ministry. Potential money laundering crimes will also be considered, according to Justice Minister Flavio Dino.

(Tweet translation: “Federal police launches inquiry to investigate attempt by Bolsonaro government to bring jewelry worth millions into the country without declaring it to customs”)

Bolsonaro on March 4 denied wrongdoing, telling a gathering of conservatives in the US that he neither asked for nor received the gift. Michelle Bolsonaro said on social media that she didn’t know about the jewels. Albuquerque said he didn’t know what the boxes his team brought into Brazil contained. An official with the Saudi Foreign Ministry reached by Bloomberg News said Riyadh is investigating the reports and gathering all the facts and plans to issue a formal statement soon.

Retrieval Attempts

Officials from Bolsonaro’s government attempted to retrieve the jewelry at least eight times between October 2021 and December 2022, when his term came to an end, according to Estado. Brazilian authorities are currently holding the jewels in a safe box, its customs agency said in a statement.

Federal police are investigating another case from the same trip, when a man entered Brazil with jewelry also made by Chopard. He was not stopped by customs and the box of items was finally delivered to the presidency, according to Estado.

Bolsonaro’s lawyer in Brazil on Tuesday said the president has acted according to the law, declaring all the gifts intended for personal use he received during trips abroad.

Yet the probe will create another potential legal headache for the right-wing leader who left Brazil in late December, just days before Lula took office.

Bolsonaro is already facing investigations into whether he attempted to plan a coup with some of his closest allies, some of whom have been arrested. Authorities are probing his unproven claims about the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system in a meeting with foreign ambassadors. He is also under scrutiny over whether he incited the Jan. 8 insurrection attempts in which his supporters raided Brazil’s congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace in an effort to overturn the Lula government.

Bolsonaro has said he will return to Brazil in March to lead the conservative opposition to his leftist rival. His wife was scheduled to launch those efforts this week with a political trip sponsored by Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party. But the party suspended the plan after the scandal broke.

Lula’s government has said that Bolsonaro should come home and face the various court cases involving him, and set an informal deadline for him to do so by April. Flavio Bolsonaro, a senator and one of the former president’s sons, said on Tuesday that his father would return on March 15. But he corrected himself minutes later, saying the date isn’t set yet.

Bolsonaro has not faced formal charges in any of the cases against him.

–With assistance from Sam Dagher.

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