BRASILIA, Brazil — A Brazilian court has temporarily removed Rio de Janeiro's governor from office due to corruption charges as authorities on Friday said they were carrying out scores of raids and more than a dozen arrests in the case.
Brazil's main prosecutor's office said Wilson Witzel, a former federal judge, was removed from office for 180 days while being investigated.
The agency also said it was raiding his official office and residence, as well as the residence of the vice governor, who by law succeeds him while he is suspended. In all, it said there were 72 search and seizure warrants in six states, the federal district and Uruguay, as well as 17 arrest warrants.
The order by the Superior Court of Justice, Brazil's second-highest court, can be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Witzel held a news conference to insist on his innocence, calling his suspension "an outrage to democracy" and the searches of his home and office a "circus." He said he would appeal.
Witzel claimed the prosecutor leading the case has ties to the family of President Jair Bolsonaro, a former ally with whom he has broken politically.
Investigators accuse Witzel of participating in a scheme involving fraud in public contracts to benefit companies linked to him and others under investigation.
Investigators suspect one of the illegal financial operations involved a social organization hired by the state government to manage field hospitals for treating Covid-19 patients.
Prosecutors also accused Witzel of benefiting from payments to his wife made by two other people under investigation.
Among those arrested Friday was Pastor Everaldo, an Evangelical leader who was the president of Witzel's political party.
Witzel was unknown to most Brazilians until the 2018 elections, when he won the state governor's race race by closely associating himself with Bolsonaro's successful presidential campaign and by promising to be tough on organized crime. He was frequently criticised by human rights watch organizations for defending controversial police operations, such as the practice of shooting from helicopters against suspects in Rio's slums.
He and Bolsonaro, however, eventually split and became political enemies.
Witzel was already facing impeachment procedures in the state legislature, though that action had been temporarily suspended by an appeal to Brazil's Supreme Court. A Supreme court justice ruled Friday that Witzel's impeachment trial in the state legislature can go on.