Shortly after Brazil’s 1964 military coup, Dilma Rousseff joined an armed guerrilla group opposed to the new dictatorship and was eventually imprisoned. Now, as the 50th anniversary of the military takeover approaches at the end of March, President Rousseff is pushing anti-terror legislation through the National Congress that could be used to classify protests as terrorism, punishable by anywhere from 15 to 30 years in prison.
The anti-terror law defines terrorism as any act that could “cause or incite terror or widespread panic.” While several progressive senators have questioned the need for such a bill, Rousseff is expected to sign the legislation in time for the World Cup in June. It is one of 16 bills currently up for debate in Congress that seek to restrict protest activities. Another of these would restrict the use of masks during demonstrations, targeting a favorite tactic of “black blocs” — groups of masked anarchists that have dominated coverage of Brazil's protests.
The legislation is meant to improve public security ahead of the World Cup, which will be a major showcase event for Latin America’s largest economy. Both FIFA and the United States have expressed concern about the security of the estimated 1.5 million tourists that will descend on Brazil in less than three months.
“Brazil is becoming increasingly international,” Cândido Vaccareza, a federal deputy and co-sponsor of the anti-terror bill, told VICE News. “Last year, the Pope came to Brazil and the whole world watched. This year, it’s the World Cup. We need to have a law on the books that defines terrorism in case of any terrorist event.”
Nevertheless, there is broad opposition to the bill, which many fear will be abused to prosecute protesters as terrorists.
“The new proposed legislation is vaguely worded and presents a clear and immediate risk of further criminalization of peaceful protesters and their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
Massive demonstrations erupted in Brazil last June, when an estimated two million Brazilians took to the streets. The protests were sparked by a bus fare increase, but quickly grew to address corruption, police brutality, and a lack of social services. The public was frustrated by the government's billion-dollar investments in preparation for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. At least six people were killed, hundreds were detained, and millions of dollars' worth of public property was destroyed.
Nine months later, Brazil's government has done little to appease the grievances that prompted the public outcry. In the last week, street vendors closed a two-lane highway in Pernambuco after authorities announced that they would be required to relocate, while in Rio de Janeiro hundreds took to the streets to protest the death of Claudia Silva Ferreira. Police officers threw her into the back of their vehicle after she was wounded in a favela shootout. The trunk opened on the road, and she died after being dragged nearly 1,000 feet.
This year has already seen hundreds of protesters detained in São Paulo, where authorities recently adopted a ‘rapid justice’ system that lets judges quickly decide via phone or even text message whether or not a detained protester will be imprisoned.
“What they want to take away from the people are our most universal rights,” Givanildo Manoel, a member of the Popular Committee for the World Cup, told VICE News. “It is fundamental that we are able to be in the streets. We have to be able to denounce the Brazilian policies that we find unacceptable.”
Adding to the frustration is the fact that much of the violence used to justify such legislation has been caused by the black blocs. During a January demonstration, a black bloc group smashed bank windows, detonated homemade explosives, and set a barricade ablaze in the street, causing a vehicle carrying a family to catch fire. Despite representing a small minority, black blocs have effectively hijacked efforts by other social movements to nonviolently express dissatisfaction with the government.
As pressure builds, Rousseff and the ruling Workers’ Party are scrambling to placate international concerns. But if the price includes criminalizing freedom of expression or the right to peaceful assembly, Rousseff might pay the ultimate cost this October, when Brazilians go to the polls to elect their next president.
During a recent gathering at the Oficina Theater, Senator Eduardo Suplicy, a 74-year-old co-founder of the Workers’ Party, spoke to a crowd gathered to oppose the anti-terror law. “This theater was closed during the dictatorship for being critical of the government,” he said. “Get out into the streets, all of you. Let your voices be heard.”
Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva
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