Brazil’s New Anti-Terrorism Bill Criminalizes Social Protest

By  |  31 / August / 2015

The government of Brazil is on a determined path to place the country among the list of nations that have restructured their legal framework as it pertains to antiterrorism statutes, even though Brazil has never experienced an actual terrorist attack. On August 13, the chamber of deputies approved an anti-terrorism bill submitted by president Dilma Rousseff without any debate. Under this law, arson and sabotage of transportation or of any public property, such as computer systems or communications media operations, are considered acts of terrorism, punishable by up to thirty years in prison.

“The majority of European countries have already approved laws similar to this one. Derived from the U.S. Patriot Act, the antiterrorist law that was imposed by George W. Bush on the countries within [the U.S.] area of influence after the September 11th attack. And Brazil is one of those countries,” asserted Esther Solano Gallego on behalf of the Americas Program. Dr. Solano is a professor of international relations at the Federal University of Sao Paulo and author of the book “The True History of the Followers of the Tactics of the Black Block.”

Professor Solano noted that one of the problems with the text of the law is the generic nature of the definition of the term terrorism.

She said, “Whoever damages the public or private heritage can be considered a terrorist. But what does ‘to attack or to damage heritage actually mean? Maybe painting graffiti or throwing a rock? Such could be called terrorism. Brazil has very high rates of institutional, police, and juridical violence. Is it really prepared for a law of this type? I don’t know.”

Social movements and organizations have already commented publicly on the dangers of intensifying the criminalization of social struggle in Brazil. According to a communiqué from a criminal justice network which was formed by the Association for Penal Reform (la Asociación para la Reforma Penitenciaria, ARP) and a group of human rights organizations, “The main problem with this bill is that it doesn’t have any limits to its general categorization of terrorist acts. Internationally, there is recognition of the difficulty of categorizing terroristic conduct while avoiding falling into the trap of criminalizing social protest and of the relativization of democratic procedures.

The Inter-American Human Rights Court of the Organization of American States, for example, condemned the Chilean state because it defined terrorism in vague terms, resulting in the criminalization of social movements and in censuring any dissenting activity.

Even though the Brazilian legislative deputies have included language in the bill stating that criminal sanctions will not be applied to social movements and to political demonstrations, the professor insists that the legal definition of terrorism is too imprecise. “We do not have international consensus. What does it mean to attack heritage or to create fear? While there are no clear definitions, and considering that there is a clearly conservative political [tendency] in Brazil that has historically criminalized the most confrontational social movements, laws such as this are always a danger.”

Brazil’s recent experience includes cases of the misuse of modified criminal classifications, for example by the Law on Criminal Organizations, in relation to the demonstrations in June 2013. According to its statement, the political justice network asserted that the organized crime law was devised with the goal of the “criminalization of movements, intimidation of political leaders, and the violation of human rights such as freedom of expression and of association.”

Prior to the events of the 2014 World Cup, at least 22 military (PM) and federal (PF) police were trained by the US-based Academi (formerly known as “Blackwater”) corporation in response to “terrorist” actions. Alluding to the concept of security in use in U.S. military doctrine under the rubric of the war on “terrorism” one tries to locate an internal enemy that is found among the general population, and to use all possible means to attack that target, according to the counterinsurgency manual of the United States (FM-3-24, MCWP-3-33.5). “The concept of the enemy and of terrorism are the foundation of security with a large ideological component, according to US military doctrine. It is the logic of commercialization, of privatization, and of the outsourcing of security and thus of violence,” said Dr. Solano.

One of the proposed modifications of the text of the bill would permit actions by agents of the State who perpetrate terror on a citizen or group of citizens or who attack legitimate political demonstrations to be classified as terrorist acts with penalties of 12 to 30 years in prison. However, the proposal was rejected by the legislators.

Brazil in Protest 

The bill is being debated in the Brazilian Congress within the context of the ongoing political and economic crisis. One year before the beginning of the Olympic Games—where it is expected that there will be much larger and more intense demonstrations than during the 2014 Cup to protest the long-term social effects that remain in the aftermath of such mega-events—there has been no progress in approving the so-called “Agenda Brasil” which would affect the economic and social rights of workers.

Among the points that are included in the said proposal are: fiscal adjustments such as review of the legislative regulations for investment licenses in the coastal zone, in protected natural areas and in historic cities, as a means of stimulating productive investments; review of the legal framework in effect in indigenous zones, as an adjunct to productive development.

In their collective communiqué, the various individuals and social movements said, “With the goal of seeking ways out of the economic and political crisis in the country, the federal government is actually negotiating with the Senate a legislative package that would deepen backsliding in social and environmental questions, weakening indigenous territorial rights and environmental regulations, and putting the country on the wrong side of the responses demanded by the climate crisis.”

Also of interest here is the manual published by the Brazilian Ministry of Defense in 2013, entitled “How to Guarantee Law and Order,” a manual that encourages the use of the military to guarantee “public security.” It enumerates criteria for categorizing enemies [of the state], such as individuals, groups, organizations and social movements that are considered “opposition forces,” with emphasis on those whose actions violate “public order or public safety.”

In an open letter, indigenous peoples of Brazil have also declared themselves against Agenda Brazil. “For us, the measures proposed in Agenda Brazil will only aggravate the climate crisis and water policy. That is to say that in addition to environmental catastrophes, it implies an increase in the conflicts and violence against our communities because we will not permit more invasions, theft, and destruction of our territory.”

Indigenous people have affirmed their defense of their lands. “We are the children of the earth, fed by the spiritual strength of our ancestors and it is because of that and because of all of nature and by all of our being that we are raising our song and our voices, our fists and our bows to fight in defense of life and for the rights of the present and future generations.”

According to economist Sammer Siman, of the Popular Brigades social movement, it is clear that the objective of the Anti-terror bill are the social mobilizations that, for him, are tending to grow, considering that the direction that this country is taking will result in discontent spreading through the population. The economist said to the Americas Program, “The escalation of the crisis is causing the increase of social conflicts, while the premium on the crisis is being charged to the people, especially poor, Black, and working people. In response to the selective austerity that continues favoring the economic elites, the conflicts will extend lethally once more to the streets of Brazil, which will be the scene of strong disputes.”

Siman noted that, although the Workers Party (PT) of Dilma Rousseff and of ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has its origins in social movements, in the present day it has agreed to the conservative economic model, which maintains Brazil’s condition of dependence on the global capitalist system. “Therefore,” he said, “it makes sense that the PT has as its only response, more repression, to maintain its agreements, because that is the only way that it can guarantee that multinationals will continue to control the economy.”

A Replay of the World Cup

The attorney and sociologist from the Federal University of Espiritu Santo, Thayla Fernandez (who researched the changes in the legal framework in the context of the massive demonstrations in Brazil since 2014) said that there is a situation of urgency in the political arena of the challenges facing each stage of approval of the Anti-terror law. The desired effect is that the Olympic Games will take place in a secure environment that will be an example before the eyes of the international community. “We got through a World Cup that created an immense public safety apparatus — the biggest legacy that the Cup left in the country,” Fernandez said to the Americas Program.

According to Fernandez’s research, the legislature guaranteed passage of more than 20 security bills to contain demonstrations against the Cup. “Since it was election season, the situation created electoral problems. Some of those bills were left behind and there’s time and more possibilities that they will be reviewed and approved in order to create the desired conditions for the Olympic Games,” said Fernandez.

Meanwhile, the anti-terrorism bill is in its second stage in the senate’s approval process.

Photos by Santiago Navarro F.

Translation by Leo Griep-Ruiz