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Brazilian police arrest lawmaker, two others in 2018 murder of Rio council member

By Fabio Teixeira and Ricardo Brito

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -Brazilian police arrested three people on Sunday, including a federal lawmaker and former police chief, accused of planning and ordering the 2018 murder of Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco and her driver.

Justice Minister Ricardo Lewandowski told a news conference

the arrests close a six-year-old case that offered a look at how organized crime has infiltrated public institutions in Rio.

Federal police arrested Congressman Chiquinho Brazao, his brother Domingos Brazao, a councilor on the Rio de Janeiro state audit court, and former Rio police chief Rivaldo Barbosa, Lewandowski said.

The two brothers ordered the 2018 hit, while Barbosa - who became police chief a day before the murder took place - helped with planning and later worked to sabotage the investigation, the federal police investigation found.

"This investigation is a kind of x-ray of how militias and organized crime operate in Rio de Janeiro and at how there is a, let's say, intertwining with some political bodies and some public bodies," he said.

The justice minister considered the case closed, but said that the findings could lead them to solve other cases or open new investigations.

Beyond the arrest warrants, police served 12 search and seizure warrants. Bank accounts linked to those involved were frozen, said the minister.

Four other people, including Barbosa's wife and a former head of Rio homicide investigations, will have to wear electronic ankle bracelets and are barred from speaking to each other, said Lewandowski.

In a statement to journalists outside the headquarters of the federal police in Rio, Brazao's lawyer said his client is innocent. Chiquinho Brazao's office and Rio police did not reply to requests for comment.

Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes were gunned down in her car after leaving an event on the night of March 14, 2018.

In 2019, two former police officers, Ronnie Lessa and Elcio de Queiroz, were indicted on charges of shooting Franco and her driver, and last year police arrested another suspect linked to the case.

Queiroz, accused of driving the car used in the crime, and Lessa, suspected of firing the gun, made plea bargain agreements with authorities, with Lessa providing information on who gave the order to kill Franco.

Franco opposed the interests of the Brazao brothers, said Lewandowski. While Franco wanted to turn certain property into housing for the poor, the Brazao brothers wanted to give it commercial use, said the minister.

Franco, 38, was a Black, openly gay and progressive council member born in a poor Rio neighborhood. Investigators have said they believed her killing to be a political assassination carried out by paid hit men.

A rising star in the Socialism and Liberty Party, Franco was an outspoken critic of police killings of Rio slum residents and her death sparked nationwide protests by Brazilians fed up with endemic violence.

In tears, Franco's widow, Monica Benicio said on Sunday she was not surprised to hear about Brazao's family involvement in the case.

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira and Sergio Queiroz in Rio de Janeiro and Ricardo Brito in Brasilia; Editing by Paul Simao, Marguerita Choy and Alistair Bell)