By Ricardo Brito, Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Andre Romani
BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian police on Tuesday conducted raids targeting several businessmen who have backed President Jair Bolsonaro’s re-election, two sources said, after a media report accused them of discussing the virtues of a coup d’etat if the far-right leader lost the October vote.
Federal police confirmed they were carrying out eight search warrants in five states at the direction of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who became head of Brazil’s top electoral court last week. Police did not name the targets.
Two people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the targets of the raids included Jose Isaac Peres, who is the chief executive officer of shopping mall operator Multiplan Empreendimentos Imobiliarios SA, and Meyer Joseph Nigri, the chairman of homebuilder Tecnisa SA.
Multiplan and Tecnisa did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Billionaire Luciano Hang, the founder of department store chain Havan and one of Bolsonaro’s most prominent supporters, said he had been targeted in the operation, which he blamed on news coverage distorting his comments in a group chat.
“An irresponsible article without context put me in this situation,” Hang wrote on Twitter. “I never spoke of a coup … I have always defended democracy and freedom of expression.”
Brazilian news website Metropoles reported last week that the businessmen were members of a WhatsApp group that speculated about potential electoral fraud and discussed the advantages of a coup d’etat if Bolsonaro lost the upcoming election.
The incumbent is trailing in opinion polls to leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and has questioned the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system, stoking concerns that he could challenge the election results.
Two of Bolsonaro’s sons, both federal lawmakers, denounced the police investigation as an abuse of power threatening freedom of expression.
“It’s insane to order a search and seizure warrant against honest businessmen … for saying in a private Whatsapp conversation that they would prefer anything to an ex-convict,” tweeted Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, referring to Lula’s time in jail for graft convictions that were later overturned.
“This is an attack against democracy in the middle of an electoral campaign. Censorship. There’s no other word,” tweeted Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is a congressman.
Businessmen Afranio Barreira Filho, Ivan Wrobel, Jose Koury, Marco Aurelio Raymundo and Luiz Andre Tissot were also targeted in Tuesday’s police raids, according to the sources. Reuters was not immediately able to reach them for comment.
(Reporting by Ricardo Brito in Brasilia, Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro and Andre Romani in Sao Paulo; Writing by Gabriel Araujo and Steven Grattan; Editing by Brad Haynes, Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)