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Political trial of Brazil's former President Bolsonaro is underway

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today in Brazil, the political trial against the former president got underway. Prosecutors say ex-leader Jair Bolsonaro abused his powers when he spread lies about fraud in Brazil's electoral system. They are recommending that he be barred from politics for the near future. That could be quite a blow for Bolsonaro, who is still a polarizing figure in the country and the leader of his far-right movement. For more on today's trial, we go to Rio de Janeiro and NPR's Carrie Kahn. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, tell us, what happened in court today?

KAHN: Well, the first thing to understand that this is not a criminal court. In Brazil, there's this whole separate court system for electoral proceedings, which, as you know, we don't have such a system in the U.S. So the court came to order early this morning.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: And the head of the court opened the trial, and we heard a lot of testimony about the charges. So prosecutors say that Bolsonaro, when he was president last year, gave a speech to this group of ambassadors, and in it, he disparaged and made unproven and false statements about the country's electronic voting system. By doing that, they say he abused his power, and they've also said that his actions were critical in setting the stage for the attacks by his supporters on January 8. That's when a mob ransacked several key government buildings in the capital. And they say he should be banned from running for office for eight years.

SUMMERS: And, Carrie, was Bolsonaro in the courtroom today as this trial went on?

KAHN: No, he wasn't. He's not required to be there. Instead, he went to what felt like a campaign stop in the south.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: So he put out this tweet set to very loud music. It's a video of him - just mobs - surrounded by supporters, all vying for selfies with him. Later in the day, he blasted the court proceedings.

SUMMERS: And what did his defense lawyers have to say?

KAHN: His lawyers' main point is that while the then-president might not have - he might not have articulated his feelings artfully about what he has long believed are problems with Brazil's electronic voting system, he has a right - freedom of expression - to say what he thinks, and he wasn't holding a political event when he talked to those ambassadors. It was an official state event.

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UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: (Speaking Portuguese)

KAHN: He says there weren't any voters even in the room. There were no candidates, no election officials. It was clearly a state act. The prosecutor came back later and said, sure, the president has the right to express his opinion, but he has no right to make blatantly false statements and spread lies. The court recessed today and will be back on Tuesday.

SUMMERS: I mean, as I'm listening to this, the sounds quite familiar to those of us in the United States who have been watching former President Trump's legal issues unfold. Talk to us - are there any similarities?

KAHN: Well, look. It's very interesting to watch these two political dramas play out. Bolsonaro considered Trump his political ally, and many say he took straight from the Trump playbook. He claimed fraud in last year's election, and when he lost his reelection bid, he refused to concede. The big difference here is that the penalties in Brazil are quite different and very swift, especially from this electoral court. Unlike Trump, he's facing this ban and looks very likely he'll be barred from running for president again in 2026. Also like Trump, he's facing many different charges, including criminal ones, that could even land him in prison. But it's clear Bolsonaro and his far-right party are not going away. It made big gains in both houses of Congress last year, and like Trump, he still remains very popular here.

SUMMERS: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRAA MAY SONG, "INTERNET TROLLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.