State repression of protests in Brazil is nothing new. Throughout much of the military dictatorship from 1964-1985, freedom of expression was formally censored; this censorship applied to both the press and street protests. During the democratic period since then, reports of police violence against demonstrators are still not uncommon.
Since 2013, however, this climate of repression has intensified. Incidences of police violence have increased, new kettling tactics have been employed, modern crowd control equipment has been acquired, and ever-larger contingents of police officers are being assigned to oversee demonstrations.
To make matters worse, the rise in repression has not been limited to the streets, but is also mirrored in the judiciary, which has begun sentencing demonstrators on the basis of weak accusations, and in the legislature, where there has been an explosion in the number of bills aimed at restricting the right to protest.
This situation is analysed in the report “The streets under attack: protests in 2014 and 2015” (published by ARTICLE 19 Brazil) which looks at 740 protests that took place between January 2014 and July 2015 in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The conclusions are cause for concern: violations which occurred at an extremely high rate in 2013 have continued to be systematically committed in the last two years.
The list of violations by police includes: failure to identify themselves; arbitrary detentions; disproportionate deployment of police officers; disproportionate use of less-lethal weapons (such as rubber bullets and tear gas); and even use of lethal weapons (reported at four demonstrations).
According to the report, the high incidence of violations during protests since 2013 has been aggravated by the failure to bring those who commit abuses to account. Hardly any of the law enforcement officers who have committed acts of violence during protests have been punished, which only serves to strengthen the cycle of violations.
State investment in upgrading the repressive apparatus increased in the period analysed. In São Paulo, the State government launched a tender process for the purchase of armoured vehicles for use during demonstrations, justified by the upcoming major sporting events in the country (Football World Cup and Olympic Games).
In the legislative sphere, bills intended to restrict the right to protest have been introduced. They include bills seeking to establish a crime of “disorder”, and to ban the use of masks in demonstrations.
In the majority of cases, courts called upon to judge arrested demonstrators, or decide on the validity of rules or requests for State accountability for abuses committed, have ended up endorsing the repressive stance of the the executive and legislature in relation to the right to protest.
On this last point, one particular case stands out: Rafael Braga was arrested in 2013 for being in possession of a bottle of disinfectant and a bottle of bleach in the vicinity of a protest in Rio de Janeiro. Braga was living on the street at the time and remains in prison. This case has prompted a debate about judicial decisions on criminality in relation to demonstrations.
To ensure that the constitutional right to freedom of expression is upheld, the Brazilian State must make a 180-degree turn in the way it has been responding to street demonstrations in recent years, and stop this wave of violations once and for all. Ending impunity in high-profile cases of police violence and breaking the pattern of criminalizing demonstrators in the judiciary would be a good first step in this direction.
Paula Martins, ARTICLE 19 Brazil
Read more on the Right to Protest in Brazil (in Portuguese)
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