By Paula Daibert
The unexpected escalation of protest movements questioning the World Cup in the so-called “country of football” has provoked emergency responses by the Brazilian government that may permanently limit rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in this young democracy.
Local human rights activists and attorneys have been calling attention to worrisome bills under urgent debate in Congress. If approved,the bills would define and punish the crime of terrorism in Brazil.
The matter was brought to the center of public debates after a cameraman was killed while covering a protest in Rio de Janeiro in February, after being hit in the head with a firework apparently thrown by a protester. Two men have been charged with third-degree murder and are now in jail awaiting a verdict.
A few days after the disturbing event, which wasthoroughly condemned on Brazilian mainstream media, Senator Jorge Viana said that the approval of an anti-terrorism law would give Brazilian society a “concrete sign” that crimes like these would be appropriately punished with “more than 30 years of imprisonment.”
Proposed in November 2013, the bill aims to prevent terrorist acts during the World Cup, which is gathering large crowds in events across multiple Brazilian states. However, the bill hasn’t been voted on yet due to disagreements on its content.
The bill defines terrorism as “to provoke or infuse generalized terror or panic through offense or attempt at offense to life, physical integrity, health or deprivation of liberty of a person.” Punishment ranges from 15 to 30 years in prison and is supposed to be increased by one third when crimes are committed using explosives and fire. The bill also establishes punishment of eight to 20 years in prison for the crime of “terrorism against things.” The text defines this phrase as provoking “generalized terror or panic through damage to goods or essential services,” such as ports, airports, metro, train and bus stations, health and educational institutions, government and military buildings, sports stadiums, among others.
Some congressmen and human rights analysts say that the definition of terrorism is too broad because “terror or panic” are subjective concepts. They believe this could leave gaps for arbitrary interpretation and could result in harshly criminalizing social movements and individual protesters, as protests have increased in the first days of the World Cup.
Amnesty International launched a report “Strategy of fear: Protecting the right to protest in Brazil” on June 5 denouncing the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets by the police against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and the misuse of current laws to stop and punish those who had taken to the streets.
In one demonstration last October, nearly 200 people were arrested in front of the municipal assembly’s building in Rio de Janeiro, and many were charged under a law originally meant to target organized crime and militias.
“It worries us the way detentions are already being carried out in the context of protests in Brazil and the proposal of this new legislation that may serve to criminalize protests even more. A serious crime like terrorism needs to be more specifically defined,” said Alexandre Ciconello, human rights advisor at Amnesty International in Brazil.
Rafael Custódio, coordinator of the Justice program at Brazilian human rights watchdog Conectas, echoed Ciconello’s opinion and said that this subjectivity may be instrumentalized to suppress social movements of any kind. He cited an occurrence when indigenous leaders were recently indicted and charged with terrorism in Chile.
“Why hasn’t it been necessary to typify the crime of terrorism in Brazil since the 80’s (when the current Brazilian Constitution was written, which only mentions terrorism) and now it is seen as an urgent matter of public safety? The World Cup is a catalyst to this repressive view against protests,” he said.
Senator Romero Jucá, the bill’s author, compared his text to similar legislation in England, the United States, Australia and France and said it isn’t vague.
“We won’t criminalize social movements in a stronger way, [their protests] won’t be characterized as terror. This is not the purpose of the law,” said Jucá.
The Congressman added that in order to avoid the law being used against social movements, the Senate is waiting to pass another bill determining stricter penalties for vandalism acts, before voting on the anti-terrorism law. This other bill, he says, is the one that aims to repress violent protests.
This other bill defines the crime of vandalism as separate from violence and conspiracy and establishes punishment of four to twelve years imprisonment and a fine. The penalty is increased by one third if the crime is committed during “peaceful and democratic popular demonstrations, of political nature or demanding of rights.”
Conectas representative Custódio claimed this as another example which proves that protests are a significant challenge facing the government.
“As a response, it creates new crimes, increases penalties, limits rights. If there are violent acts by protesters, the system should act to prevent them and identify the perpetrators and ensure they are called to justice for their acts, as it should be under the democratic state of law”, he said, while adding that the Brazilian penal code already establishes punishment for crimes of terrorism, homicide, damage to property, use of explosives, bodily harm, etc.
Along with local rights organizations, international organizations such as Defense Institute for the Right to Defense (IDDD), Global Justice, Article 19, Institute for Human Rights Defenders (IDDH), Greenpeace Brazil, and Conectas have called for a veto to this bill.
“The Brazilian experience with popular demonstrations, observed since June 2013, has eloquently reaffirmed that the excessive official response, beyond the flagrant contempt of democratic legal institutions, has only generated more violence on the streets,” reads a document which the NGOs signed and filed with the Senate’s Constitution and Justice Commission in May.
Amnesty International also launched a global campaign ahead of the Brazil World Cup tackling restrictions to freedom of expression and police abuses against peaceful protests.
Featured image courtesy Midia NINJA. “Respect me, I’m a teacher. Vandal is the State,” reads a sign help by a protestor during a demonstration in Rio.
Paula Daibert is a Rio de Janeiro-based journalist with a master’s degree in Arab and Islamic Studies and a passion for global affairs, human rights issues and citizen participation in news coverage. She is a contributor to Al Jazeera English and has reported for local and international media from Brazil, Qatar, Spain, Tunisia and Venezuela.