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Congressman Jair Bolsonaro holds a Brazilian flag during a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, part of nationwide protests calling for her impeachment, in Brasilia, Brazil, March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil's Congress on Tuesday opened an ethics investigation into Jair Bolsonaro, an outspoken lawmaker whose views on torture, rape and homosexuality are sparking concern that the country's political crisis may foster an authoritarian political revival.

The ethics committee of Brazil's Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, will try to determine if Bolsonaro, a former Brazilian Army paratrooper, broke parliamentary decorum when he prefaced his vote in April to impeach President Dilma Rousseff with a speech praising Army Colonel Carlos Ustra.

Courts have found Ustra, a notorious Army intelligence officer during the 1964-1985 military regime, responsible for torture. Rousseff, a former left-wing insurgent, was tortured by Ustra's Army intelligence unit.

For his congressional opponents, Bolsonaro's backing of Ustra represents support of torture.

Bolsonaro, Brazil's fourth-most popular politician according to recent polls, is an extreme example of a broader shift to the right in Brazilian politics in the wake of Rousseff's impeachment. Small groups of protesters in recent anti-Rousseff street marches were seen carrying signs calling for a return of military rule.

Conservative legislators in Brazil said recently they will back interim President Temer through a growing corruption scandal in return for support for tougher restrictions on abortion and gay rights, looser gun control and more power for farmers in disputes with Indian tribes.

A congressional ethics examination and resulting recommendation can lead to sanctions that include removal from office.

Bolsonaro said Ustra was never formally convicted and congressmen have immunity to say whatever they like on the chamber's floor. Only five lawmakers attended the opening ethics committee meeting.

While Brazil's constitution protects free speech, laws still exist making speech considered racist or hateful toward identifiable groups illegal. In some cases people have been charged under laws making it a crime to defend the use of illegal drugs.

Bolsonaro is also defending himself in the Supreme Court against accusations of inciting rape for comments he made in 2014. He said a female colleague was "very ugly" and "did not deserve to be raped."

Rousseff was suspended in May after the Senate agreed to try her for allegedly breaking budget laws. She was replaced by Vice President Michel Temer who will serve as acting president until Rousseff's Senate trial is complete, likely in August. Rousseff denies the charges.

If she is convicted, Temer will serve out the remainder of Rousseff's term, which ends Dec 31, 2018. If acquitted, Rousseff can resume her office.

(Reporting by Maria Pia Palermo, Writing by Caroline Stauffer and Jeb Blount; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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