Brazil's High Court of Justice removed Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel from office Friday, as police raided his official residence in a probe into accusations he stole emergency funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The raids also targeted the far-right governor's wife and inner circle. Among those arrested was Pastor Everaldo, an evangelical preacher and leader of Witzel's Christian Social Party (PSC).
Helicopters circled over the stately governor's residence, Laranjeiras Palace, starting at dawn as federal police executed a sweeping series of search and seizure orders and arrest warrants.
The court ruling suspends Witzel, 52, from office for at least 180 days as authorities investigate claims he took a reported 274.2 million reals ($50 million) in kickbacks.
Prosecutors say Witzel, an erstwhile ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, set up a slush fund for bribes as soon as he took office in January 2019.
The investigation is mainly focused on allegations his administration stole emergency funds for field hospitals, ventilators and medicine to fight the new coronavirus.
"This criminal organization acted and continues acting to embezzle and launder funds in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, sacrificing the health and even lives of millions of people," Justice Benedito Goncalves wrote in his ruling.
The full 15-judge court is due to take up the case next Wednesday.
Witzel vowed to fight the decision "by any means necessary."
"I'm being politically massacred because there are powerful interests who don't want me governing this state," he said in a televised address from his official residence, where he will be allowed to remain pending the outcome of the case.
"The president has made extremely serious but frivolous accusations against me, because he thinks I'm going to be a presidential candidate" in Brazil's 2022 elections, he said.
- From palace to jail -
Rio is second only to Sao Paulo in infections and deaths from the virus in Brazil, which is in turn the country hit second-hardest in the world, after the United States, with nearly 3.8 million cases and 120,000 people dead.
Allegations of massive corruption in Rio have swirled since the start of the pandemic.
Of the seven field hospitals the state contracted to respond to the health crisis, only two actually opened.
Witzel, a former judge, was already facing impeachment in the state legislature over the accusations.
Witzel helped Bolsonaro win the election in 2018 but has since clashed with him repeatedly, including over the governor's insistence on imposing coronavirus lockdown measures against the president's wishes.
Bolsonaro laughed when asked about Witzel's legal woes by a supporter outside the presidential palace in Brasilia.
"There's a lot going on in Rio today! Who's the governor now, anyway?" joked the far-right leader.
"Corruption seems to have sunk deep roots in Rio," said Vice President Hamilton Mourao.
Including Witzel, five of Rio de Janeiro's past six governors have now been jailed or implicated in crimes.
The most notorious case was that of Sergio Cabral (2007-2014), who was jailed in 2016 and sentenced to a total of nearly 300 years in prison for various corruption cases, including one over the renovation of Rio's iconic Maracana stadium for the 2014 World Cup.
Witzel will be replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Governor Claudio Castro, who is also a target in the corruption investigation.