With the start of the World Cup only a week away, all eyes have turned to Brazil. Yet as the event gets closer, the country is seeing some of the largest demonstrations in decades, with hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protesting against poor public transportation, government corruption and state spending on the event, money which they believe would be better spent on public services.
The state response to these demonstrations has been one of increasing repression and violence which has worrying implications for individual and collective freedom of expression in Brazil. Indeed it seems that despite being led by President Dilma Rousseff, who was herself tortured during the dictatorship, the state machinery still retains its military mindset, viewing even the most peaceful protest as a threat.
Police are using excessive force against demonstrators, including potentially lethal rubber bullets and tear gas. A large number of police officers have been spotted removing their proper identification during the protests and there have been cases of police refusing to identify themselves in response to requests by protesters and journalists. There have been scores of arbitrary arrests and detention, including detention for questioning of people not involved in potential criminal acts or under investigation, which is illegal. Our research shows the number of people detained in protests in 2013 reached 2,608. Worryingly, we are not aware of any sanctions against police who have committed violations during demonstrations, even though many of these incidents have been recorded on film.
The response from the judiciary itself has been mixed. Some judges released detainees, rejecting police arguments to charge them with criminal association and conspiracy simply because they were dressed in black or carrying masks. However, one judge released a group of seven protesters only on condition that they did not participate in further protests in person or online - a serious affront to protesters' freedom of expression and rights to peaceful assembly.
The first judgment imprisoning an individual came on 2 December 2013 when a homeless man, Rafael Vieira, was arrested and charged for carrying bottles of various substances, including bleach. Although the defence argued that Raphael did not participate in the protests and that the substances could not be used to cause damage, the magistrate decided that "ethanol found inside one of the bottles can be used as fuel for fires, with capacity to cause property damage, personal injury and death." He was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
To compound the crackdown on freedom of expression, several bills have been proposed to Congress to criminalise demonstrations, including increasing the penalty for crimes related to damage to property and persons when these happen in demonstrations, the criminalisation of the use of masks in protests and the closure of public roads. One draft bill relating to the damage of property, carries a minimum sentence greater than that for murder.
Furthermore, the General World Cup Law, which was approved in 2012, already prohibits demonstrations that do not contribute to a 'festive and friendly' event, meaning that some protests could be considered illegal depending on their nature if held anywhere near
a stadium, which of course are mainly in highly populated urban areas.
The right to protest and freedom of expression is protected under international law, and yet these rights are being stripped away in Brazil. Indeed the Government itself estimates it will spend around 1,9billion reals (£494million) on 'security' equipment, such as tanks with water cannons, pepper spray and surveillance drones, for the games - hardly a sign of a country which respects its citizens rights to protest.
Article 19 is calling on the Brazilian government to ensure the right to protest and freedom of expression is protected, by introducing a new law to regulate the use of police force during demonstrations, which should follow international standards.
This law should also ensure policing at protests is designed to safeguard people's right to protest in a safe manner, and that the emphasis should be on negotiation rather than that of repression as it currently stands.
With elections scheduled for October, the Government should be listening to its people, not curtailing their right to voice their concerns. The global leadership role Brazil has played online convening the internet conference, NETmundial, and adopting one of the world's first internet freedom laws, Marco Civil, need to be replicated in protest. Brazil must stop behaving like a military dictatorship from the past, and should begin to act like the democracy it is.
Article 19's report into the protests: Brazil's own goal: Protests, Police and the World Cup can be read in full here
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