All eyes on Brazil



A year of mass protests and police brutality

Last year, Brazil saw mass protests of a scale never before seen in the country.

In May 2013, Brazilians took to the streets, initially to rally against rises in transport fares. The focus of the demonstrations quickly widened from outrage at transport fare hikes to include dissatisfaction with inadequate public services, including healthcare and education, as well as government corruption and forced eviction of communities in preparation for the World Cup.

What started as small demonstrations in a number of cities gathered in scale, and as many as 300,000 people took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro during May and June.

Key problems with policing

As protests gathered momentum, it became clear that police and security forces were not equipped to deal with demonstrations of this scale. In many cases they reacted violently and in violation of international regulations.

No training

Police and security forces were ill-equipped to deal with large-scale demonstrations. Research this year found that over 60% of the Brazilian police force felt that they had not received adequate training for work of this kind.

Illegal use of weapons

Police used excessive force to control protests – including tear gas and rubber bullets.In doing so, they injured many civilians attending protests.

  • A photographer covering the protests in São Paulo on 13 June 2013 lost his eye after being shot by police with rubber bullets. He lost his eye.
  • A municipal street cleaner in Belem, Pará state, died on 21 June 2013 after police allegedly sprayed tear gas inside a place where she and other people were sheltering during a protest the day before.

Mass detentions

Hundreds of protesters were arrested during the 2013 protests. Some were immediately released and others were detained and charged – many of them for offenses of contempt, resistance, conspiracy to gather or assemble, and for causing damage to property.
Lawyers for some of the detainees in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro told us that police prevented them from accessing the detainees on multiple occasions. Police prevented some detained protesters from contacting a lawyer or a family member for several hours after their arrest.

Not held to account

In São Paulo alone, Police Internal Affairs opened 21 internal processes to investigate allegations of violations by the police during protests between June 2013 and January 2014. It is reported that, so far, none of these investigations have been concluded and no police officers have been subjected to disciplinary or criminal proceedings or received any penalties.

Now protesting may become a criminal offence

The Brazilian government is one step away from passing a new ‘terrorism’ Bill ahead of the tournament in June. If passed, it could see any civilian attending a protest – regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not – imprisoned for peacefully demonstrating.

Law 449/2013 plans to make ‘disorder’ a crime, with the aim of addressing threats of terrorism. But ‘disorder’ is vaguely worded in the Bill – if passed in its current form, innocent civilians could be locked up simply for expressing their right to free speech and freedom of assembly. The Brazilian government appears to be rushing through this legislation before the World Cup starts in June, potentially in order to curb protests at the time of the tournament.

Protesting is not a crime, it’s a human right. Instead of crushing potential protests, Brazilian authorities should instead be looking for ways to responsibly police demonstrations and allow citizens to peacefully protest without fear of arrest.