Documents once labeled as “secret” by the National Information Service (SNI) shed light on Jair Bolsonaro’s military career. Thirty years ago, the captain was tried twice – in different cases – by the Army’s Justification Council, a sort of discipline hearing committee designed to judge the conduct of its officials.
The first case revolves around an op-ed he published in Veja magazine in 1986, criticizing “low salaries for the military.” He counters information published by the media at the time that dozens of cadets had been dismissed for “sodomy, drug use, and even indiscipline,” saying that the reason was a financial crisis that had victimized officers. Mr. Bolsonaro, then 33, didn’t have the authorization from his superiors to write the op-ed and was immediately punished with 15 days of detention.
In all levels of military justice, Mr. Bolsonaro was found guilty of insubordination.[restricted]
Two years later, accusations would be far more serious. In 1988, he was investigated by the alleged participation in a plan to drop flash grenades inside Army barracks. The goal was to pressure the government into raising the salaries of military officers.
Once again, the Justification Council found him guilty. In the highest military court however, the Superior Military Court (STM) found Mr. Bolsonaro “not guilty” in a 9-4 vote, during a secret (but entirely recorded) session on June 16, 1988. The STM trial was the last step in the long case of military rebellion, the first to happen after the end of the military dictatorship. A total of 37 audio clips, revealed last year by reporter Luiz Maklouf Carvalho, tell a story of the presidential frontrunner that he – and many of his supporters – would rather forget.
This was a pivotal moment for the story not only of Mr. Bolsonaro’s life, but also of this country, as it took the young captain out of anonymity and into politics.
Understanding the case
The plan for dropping the grenades was revealed by Veja magazine, on October 25, 1987. The SNI report says Veja informs a growing sentiment of rebellion among lower-ranked officers in the Army. In her article, journalist Cássia Maria interviewed two young captains, Fábios Passos da Silva, the “Sheriff,” and Jair Messias Bolsonaro. The journalist said the two detailed a plan to cause small explosions in the Agulhas Negras Military Academy (Aman) and other Army buildings, as a response to the “low raise to the military men the government was to announce” – publishing sketches allegedly drawn by Mr. Bolsonaro himself.
In 1989, both Cap. Silva and Cap. Bolsonaro denied, in a handwritten statement, ever having given an interview to Veja. Four forensic reports were made during the process, with two of them stating Mr. Bolsonaro’s guilt “beyond any doubt,” and the other two saying that it was inconclusive. Still, the Army’s Justification Council considered that he was guilty of insubordination and was not “compatible” to the requirements of being a top-ranked official. Thus, the council recommended—in a unanimous decision—that he lose his patent and position. The accusation was: “irregular conduct, practicing acts that affect personal honor, and military decorum.”
Jair Bolsonaro’s military trial
The trial begins with the case’s rapporteur, General Sérgio Pires, declaring his “not guilty” vote. For him, the young captain had already paid his dues: the 15-day prison time for the op-ed. Furthermore, he believed that the evidence lacked consistency. Eight of the 13 judges followed him, while the remaining four believed he was guilty and was “consumed by vanity.” The judges who voted for Mr. Bolsonaro’s guilt also mentioned he acted on “pure vanity,” which would be a frontal violation of the Armed Forces’ code of honor.
But with a favorable verdict, Mr. Bolsonaro was placed in December 1988 on paid retirement with full benefits as a captain. One month before, he had become a city councilor for the city of Rio de Janeiro, for the Christian Democratic Party. Thirty years later, he’d be polling at 58 percent for the presidential race.[/restricted]