Activists in Brazil say a proposed law defining terrorism will criminalize protest movements, including those looking to use media attention on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to highlight social injustices and push for reforms.
The bill, authored by President Dilma Rousseff's office, was amended on its way through the lower house of Congress to add specific exemptions for social movements, but these were removed when it sailed through the Senate last week. It now heads back for a final reading by Brazil's deputies, and would require final approval by the president.
Supporters of the bill argue Brazil needs legislation to define and fight terrorism, though experts charge that the move stems from pressure from the US-led anti-terrorism body — the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF — amid fears of sanctions that could exacerbate the country's recession. The bill was signed by Rousseff's top economic team — including finance minister Joaquim Levy, who government sources told VICE News is the legislation's main proponent.
More than 80 social and political movements have signed an open letter repudiating what they label a "retrograde step" in citizens' rights to protest. The letter argues that the bill would make routine the "state of exception" that they say Brazil first imposed by default during the World Cup last year — by giving the authorities the power to arrest and charge people as "terrorists" should the tiniest amount of damage result from heated protests.
"Under this law, anything that happens during a protest, if a pane of glass gets broken even accidentally, will be considered terrorism," Ana Paula Ribeiro of the Homeless Workers' Movement, or MTST, told VICE News.
"We will not stop our protests until politicians step back from this unnecessary law," Ribeiro continued. She also vowed that the group — one of Brazil's biggest social movements — would not "abandon the streets" even if the bill is approved, as expected.
Critics have focused their opposition to the bill on the vagueness of its definitions of what constitutes a terrorist attack that could carry with it jail terms of up to 30 years. The motives listed include "political extremism", and the "artefacts" used in them could be defined as anything from explosives to nuclear weapons. The targets itemized include communication networks serving public services, infrastructure, military installations, banking institutions, the oil industry, and stadiums.
One particularly controversial clause also defines "vandalizing… or destroying… public transport or any public or private property" as acts of terrorism.
Violence and vandalism are periodic features of protests in Brazil. Both were present in the huge protests in 2013 and 2014 against the government, the state of public services and the multi-billion-dollar price tag of the World Cup.
Dozens of activists were arrested during the tournament, including Camila Jourdan, a university lecturer. She was among 23 people detained preventively in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the July 2014 final. She was held in prison for 13 days accused of carrying and storing explosives and of criminal association and has been banned from participating in protests while the case against her continues.
"The new terrorism law is an attempt to transform political and social movements into criminal movements," Jourdan told VICE News by phone from Rio. "Judges can already use existing legislation to lock up protesters preventively. The new law is even more vague and aims to stop social movements doing much more than walking up and down Copacabana Beach."
Some of the activists' concerns have been echoed in the legislature. Senators Humberto Costa, Vanessa Grazziotin and Randolfe Rodrigues tried and failed to re-introduce amendments aimed at exempting activists from the definitions.
"By including 'political extremism' as one of the elements defining terrorism, the bill opens a precedent to criminalize activists," Senator Rodrigues told the Senate during the debate.
The amendments were rejected by the majority, with the argument that it should be up to judges to decide whether an attack constitutes terrorism or not.
But some legal experts have criticized this approach: "It is problematic to simplify things this way," says Francisco Brito Cruz, a lawyer and human rights philosopher. "Each analysis will have a political angle and each judge will interpret it a different way".
Meanwhile, the proposed law has also been slammed by many who are convinced that it stems from Brazilian acquiescence to recommendations by the U.S.-led global Financial Action Task Force, rather than any genuine internal need to address a terrorist threat.
The FATF was set up as a G7 initiative in 1989 to fight money laundering worldwide. It was beefed up in the wake of the September 11 attacks and given the power to impose economic sanctions and tarnish financial reputations, triggering downgrading from credit rating agencies.
The FATF issues directives on the legislation that it considers should be introduced in member countries, which now number 36 including Brazil. In 2010 it drew up a report saying that Brazil should "create a stand-alone offense to criminalize terrorist financing… as a matter of priority."
Several government officials told VICE News the FATF recommendations were not the catalyst for the legislation.
"Perhaps the president ordered the bill be fast-tracked because of the FATF threats, but that is not the case with Congress," said Senator Aloysio Nunes, the bill's main sponsor in the upper house.
However, an internal Senate report, obtained by VICE News, highlights that ignoring the Task Force's recommendations could be costly at a time when Brazil is struggling to emerge from recession. "Not approving this bill may lead to international sanctions on Brazil, as alerted by the FATF, which could blacklist Brazil as a 'non-compliant country'," the report says.
On October 16, President Dilma Rousseff signed a law criminalizing the financing of terrorism in accordance with FATF's instructions and ahead of a special meeting with the body on October 20. It still, however, lacked the law defining what terrorism is.
According to Ibrahim Warde, author of The Price of Fear: The Truth Behind The Financial War on Terror, the FATF has been using a of policy of naming and shaming countries to coerce policymakers into approving laws. "Most countries are not politically strong enough to opposite the recommendations. There has been a lot of vulnerability since the 2008 economic crisis," Warde told VICE News.
Critics say the FATF has been pushing countries not only into defining terrorism financing, but terrorism itself -- a term over which there is scant international consensus. They say that such legislation has now restricted protesters' rights — directly or indirectly — in more than 15 countries, including Spain, Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia.
"We are particularly concerned about the lack of human rights safeguards within FATF and the fact that the recommendations do not take into account the proportionality of the measures that they propose to governments," Iva Dobichina, of Open Society's Human Rights Initiative, told VICE News.
"In countries that are traditionally not welcoming to civil society, this type of recommendation is yet another excuse to push back against it," she added. "We need to ensure … these laws do not violate people's ability to organize."
Now, with less than a year until hundreds of thousands of people descend on Rio for the 2016 Olympics, Brazilian social movements insist they should be allowed to use the world spotlight to draw attention to their causes without the fear of a terrorism charge hanging over their heads.
"Rio's Olympic Games have already been used to justify waging war on the poorest in society," Jourdan said, referring to the forced removal of families from shanty towns to make way for installations for the Games that are costing around $10 billion to stage.
"I'm absolutely convinced that, had this law been in place last year, I would have been on trial as a terrorist and so would many others."