Brazil: Report analyses recent process of criminalisation of protests

Brazil: Report analyses recent process of criminalisation of protests - Civic Space


  • Study describes how the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government have adopted measures to restrict the right to protest in Brazil
  • The report shows that between August 2015 and December 2016, at least 1,244 demonstrators were detained and 22 restrictive bills were proposed
  • In the state of São Paulo, at least 69 protests were targets of stun grenades and tear gas canisters used by police
  • Among the findings are the new requirement of notification on the route of demonstrations and the retaking of occupied buildings without court orders

ARTICLE 19 today launches the report “In the streets, in the laws, in the courts: violations of the right to protest in Brazil, 2015-2016”, that provides a detailed analysis of the process of criminalisation of the right of protest that has occurred in Brazil in the three branches of governance: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. In addition, the report draws attention to the growing attitude that protest is criminal, instead of a right.

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The report shows new techniques used by the police to crackdown on demonstrations, new criminal charges used in detaining activists, repressive judicial decisions against demonstrators, and the proposal, and in some cases passage, of bills that restrict the right to protest.

Another worrying trend observed in the research was the demand by the police for organisers to tell them the protest route, otherwise they would be prevented from marching. This conduct was recorded in several protests in the city of São Paulo.

Several emblematic cases of demonstrations that have been targeted by the disproportionate use of force by police are highlighted in the report. Among them are demonstrations against the impeachment of the former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and the occupations of school buildings by high school students against austerity measures in education funding.

The student occupations even motivated the Government of the State of São Paulo and the police to adopt an unprecedented procedure: the retaking of occupied buildings without court orders.

According to the report, of all the protests registered between August 2015 and December 2016 in Brazil, at least 1,244 demonstrators were detained, while in the state of São Paulo alone, at least 69 demonstrations were targeted by the use of stun grenades and tear gas canisters by the police. On the legislative side, at least 22 bills were found to have been proposed or passed, which would directly or indirectly restrict the right to protest.

Violations of the right to protest and free expression

For Paula Martins, Director of ARTICLE 19 South America, the Brazilian state’s attitude toward street demonstrations has been very worrying for the right to protest and freedom of expression.

“The criminalisation of protest that was once very visible in the executive branch, through episodes of police repression at demonstrations, ended up in recent years also in the legislative and judicial branches. This process has caused great concern for civil society because it suppresses civil rights provided for in the Constitution and ratified by Brazil in international conventions”, she says.

She also adds: “One short-term measure that could be taken to remedy the situation is the creation of a protocol regulating the use of the police force in protests, which is currently either lacking or not public. In addition, it would be up to government officials and the judiciary to investigate the abuses and illegalities committed by police at the demonstrations and to enact policies aimed at guaranteeing this fundamental right. However, what we see today is often the opposite, with high level government officials commending violent police actions and judges issuing restrictive decisions on the right of protest, which further perpetuate the cycle of violations.”

The Anti-Terrorism Law and the Olympics Law

One of the main milestones in the criminalisation of the right to protest in Brazil was the Anti-Terrorism Law, approved at the end of 2015. The law is discussed in the report as it has gaps that allow it to be applied against demonstrators. Its approval took place in the context of the Olympic Games in Brazil, which was marked by various violations of the right of protest.

The report recalls that in both Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo, demonstrations against the social impacts of the Games have been targeted by strong police repression. It also criticises the approval of the “General Law of the Olympics”, which, among other things, prohibits the use of flags for purposes other than that of “festive and friendly demonstration”, and recalls that, during the event, several spectators came to be expelled from the competition venues for demonstrating politically, in a flagrant violation of the right to protest and freedom of expression.

Significant cases and positive examples

The report also highlights some of the most significant cases of people who have been victims of the criminalisation of the right to protest in Brazil. Among the cases is Rafael Braga, who was imprisoned for more than two years after being detained carrying a bottle of disinfectant near a demonstration that took place in June 2013 in Rio de Janeiro. After the progression to the semi-open regime in December 2015, Rafael was again arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 10 days for appearing in a photo next to a protest message.

Another case cited is that of photographer Sérgio Silva, who lost his left eye after being shot by a rubber bullet that hit him in the face while covering a demonstration in Sao Paulo in June 2013. Sérgio filed an action asking for compensation but saw his request denied by the Justice in August 2016 on the grounds that he himself was responsible for the injury, in a very illustrative example of the Brazilian courts’ position on legitimising violations in protests.

Despite the wide-ranging examples of violations of the right to protest, there have been a few positive episodes that are mentioned in the report. These included judicial decisions that suspended the retaking of occupied buildings, the granting of indemnities to injured protesters, and the lawsuit accepted by the São Paulo State Court that, for a few days, restricted the State police from employing less lethal weaponry at demonstrations until a protocol on the use of police force was created.