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Arbitrary arrests characterise police response to protests in Brazil

Throughout June 2013, a wave of protests gripped cities across Brazil. Although they initially began in response to an increase in public transport fares, they soon took on broader issues following the violent police crackdown. As these protests gained momentum nationally, other pressing social issues were highlighted, including the impact of large development projects in urban areas and the large amounts of money invested in preparing the country for the upcoming World Cup (2014) and Olympics (2016).

The first large scale protest which took place on 6 June was brutally repressed by the police and was followed by a series of demonstrations which culminated, on 20 June, with protests taking place in over 100 cities around the country and involving more than 2 million people.

The response of the authorities was to launch a fierce crackdown on the protesters. There has been a large number of arbitrary arrests and protesters have reported the use of intimidation, violence and abuse during detention. These actions amount to a direct attack on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly. These violations must be properly investigated and those responsible must be held accountable for their actions.

By mid-June 2013, the sweeping protests had grown to become the largest in Brazil since the 1992 demonstrations calling for the impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello. Social media played an important role in the organisation of the June protests, by providing live updates on incidents to protestors and acting as a tool which enabled them to keep in contact with one another.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that police have disproportionately and illegitimately restricted the right for people to express themselves freely, to associate with one another, and in some cases, violated privacy rights and the right to personal integrity.

In 2013, ARTICLE 19 documented:

- A total of 645 protests having taken place
- The total number of protesters detained is estimated to be 2470
- Ten of those arrested were journalists
- The total number of people injured during the protest is thought to be 730, 56 of whom were journalists
- Lethal weapons were used in at least 94 of these demonstrations

ARTICLE 19 staff members personally witnessed and reported a number of human right violations carried out by the police officers, such as:

- Failing to display identification on their uniforms
- Using lethal weapons
- Sending excessive numbers of police officers to demonstrations and using excessive amounts of force
- Arbitrarily detaining protesters, for reasons such as possessing vinegar (which is used to relieve the effects of tear gas), carrying ink or spray paint, carrying sharp objects (such as scissors) and “looking suspicious”
- Using undercover policemen to spy on groups organising the demonstrations and intimidating people during the demonstrations
- Obstructing the work of journalists and bloggers who are working to report on police action during demonstrations
- Monitoring the personal data and enacting other methods of surveillance in violation of privacy rights, including phone tapping and social media surveillance
- Using inadequate and disproportionate criminal provisions against protesters, including the crime of the “creation of gangs and criminal associations” and certain provisions of the National Security Law
- Using various strategies to create fear and generate chaos among peaceful demonstrators, such as use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters and bystanders who were shouting "no violence". Many bystanders were caught between the riot police and the cavalry, with no way of protecting themselves from either the tear gas or the bullets fired. Among those wounded were protesters, local residents, and people on their way home from work as well as journalists covering the events. One of the journalists who was injured is at risk of losing his eyesight as a result of being struck by a rubber bullet.

According to the information collected so far, the authorities' response to police brutality and to complaints in specific cases has been insufficient.

However, the lack of respect by the police for human rights is not the only threat to freedom of expression in Brazil. Brazil's National Congress is currently drafting a law defining the criminal offence of terrorism. Included in discussions taking place in this process, is the consideration of including social movements as terrorist groups. This is a strategy that is already used in other countries as a way to criminalise protest movements. Other bills are also being considered that propose harsh sanctions for protest-related activities.

In addition, the Court of Minas Gerais has introduced a new form of censorship by banning public demonstrations during Confederations Cup games. Similar restrictions have been proposed in Rio de Janeiro.

The excessive use of force by the military police is totemic of a dangerous legacy dating back to the military dictatorship era of the country. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Council recommended that Brazil work towards abolishing the military police.

Today, tensions remain high in Brazil as a result of the protest crackdowns. The Brazilian authorities appear committed to a range of methods (including surveillance) to prevent similar large-scale protests from taking place again during upcoming international events which are set to take place in the country. In addition, it has been reported to ARTICLE 19 that orders have been issued to demobilise and suppress further protests.

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