By Rodrigo Viga Gaier
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 28 (Reuters) - A Brazilian court temporarily removed Rio de Janeiro state's governor from office on Friday over alleged graft in the purchase of medical supplies and services to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
A raft of investigations have been opened in Brazil and other Latin American countries, including Peru, Ecuador and Mexico, into alleged corruption related to the response to the coronavirus outbreak in the world's hardest-hit region.
The 180-day suspension handed down by the Superior Court of Justice in Brasilia is a major blow for Governor Wilson Witzel, a law-and-order politician who rose from virtual political obscurity to win the governorship of Brazil's second-largest city in 2018.
Originally aligned with President Jair Bolsonaro, Witzel has become an increasingly vocal critic of the right-wing president and was widely seen as a potential rival for the 2022 election.
In a statement to reporters, the governor called his removal a politically-motivated "circus" led by a public prosecutor with ties to the Bolsonaro family and based on false testimony by his former health secretary.
The suspension comes on top of impeachment proceedings against Witzel over the alleged graft.
Witzel's lawyers said they were surprised by the court's decision and were awaiting documents detailing the accusations against him.
In conjunction with the court decision, federal police carried out 17 arrests and 72 raids on associates of Witzel on Friday as part of their graft investigation, prosecutors said.
In an earlier operation in May, federal prosecutors alleged Witzel and his wife Helena led a sprawling criminal operation in which her law firm was used to receive payment from a company that won state coronavirus contracts, according to federal court documents seen by Reuters.
At the time, Witzel said he was innocent, his wife said the operation was politically motivated and her law firm said police searches found nothing that could prove the allegations.
One of those arrested on Friday was Everaldo Pereira, an evangelical pastor who is head of the Social Christian Party, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. A high-profile conservative, Pereira has been close to Bolsonaro, baptizing him in the Jordan River in 2016.
The Social Christian Party said in a statement that Pereira has always been available to clarify authorities' questions.
Coronavirus cases passed the 7 million mark in Latin America on Thursday, more than half of them in Brazil, which has the world's worst outbreak outside the United States.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier, in Rio, and Lisandra Paraguassu, in Brasilia; Writing by Carolina Mandl and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Pravin Char and Paul Simao)
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