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A scandal in Brazil involves an ex-president, jewels and the Saudi government

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A scandal unfolding in Brazil involves millions of dollars' worth of jewels, the Saudi government and former President Jair Bolsonaro. The jewels were a gift from the Saudis to Bolsonaro and his wife. Now officials are investigating his efforts to keep them. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The jewels are valued at more than 16 million riyals, about $3.2 million. They were discovered by a Customs official in the backpack of an aide who returned to Brazil from the Saudi kingdom in late 2021. Current Finance Minister Fernando Haddad says the jewels, reportedly a gift for the former first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, should have been declared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDO HADDAD: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Nobody can just get a present of 16 million riyals," he said. "Procedures must be followed, and they weren't," he added. Travelers to Brazil can bring in goods up to $1,000 tax-free. While Customs confiscated one set of jewels, apparently there was a second set they missed. It's unclear where that is or how much it's worth.

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JAIR BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I'm getting crucified for a present I never received," Bolsonaro recently told a Brazilian TV station. He's been living in Florida since leaving Brazil right before leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office. Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist, has never conceded defeat to Lula in last year's close election.

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BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I've never abused my authority," he said. His lawyer, contacted by NPR, says Bolsonaro did follow all pertinent laws. That's not true, says Daniela Campello, a political scientist at Brazil's FGV private university.

DANIELA CAMPELLO: I think it's a very straightforward case that everybody understands. It's a lot of money.

KAHN: She says no taxes were paid on the jewelry, and...

CAMPELLO: It involves the former first lady, who is supposed to be a new leader of the far right in Brazil. So I think that's very damaging for the image of both Bolsonaro and his wife.

KAHN: Every day, a new revelation in the scandal's making headlines, like the latest, this video on GloboNews.

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UNIDENTIFIED AIDE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: It's a Bolsonaro aide trying to persuade Customs to release the jewels just one day before Bolsonaro left for Florida. This was one of eight attempts his officials made. Bolsonaro's growing legal troubles are complicating his return to Brazil, which he said could be as early as this month.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. 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.