By Milli Legrain, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As the demonstrations continue and the World Cup draws closer, defenders of civil liberties and the right to protest have voiced concern over the criminalization of public protests in Rio. Last week, after tens of thousands gathered in Rio’s city center on Teacher’s Day in support of quality public schooling as well as fair pay, over two hundred arrests were made, including eighteen minors.
Several of the teachers, students and journalists arrested claimed they were being detained under a new federal law designed to combat organized crime, approved in August this year. Since then, the author of the law, federal deputy Vieira da Cunha, has expressed concern over its application, reiterating the fact that it was created to crack down on sophisticated criminal organizations.
Police forces in Rio and São Paulo have visibly strengthened their strategy in response to the increased presence of Black Bloc activists intent on damaging ‘symbols of capitalism’ and using the protests to continue their fight against what they see as the corrupt political system.
Since June, however, a heavy-handed approach from the authorities has repeatedly been blamed for escalating, rather than containing, violence. The recent wave of arrests, with most detainees released without charge, have done little to help the image of the police.
“The law is being used to criminalize protesters while the mainstream media is stigmatizing them. This represents a severe violation of human rights,” attorney Helena Rocha told The Rio Times.
After a week in detention, the last of seventeen minors arrested last Tuesday was released on October 22nd. According to the public defender’s office, the judiciary determined that no illegal acts had been committed and the other adolescents had all been released from a detention center on Ilha do Governador.
Civil rights organizations denounced the detention strategy, which they say is a legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship. “In what was clearly an attempt to hinder legal assistance,” argues Natalia Damázio, an attorney at the Institute for Human Rights Defenders, “the detainees were driven from the city center to as many as eight precincts including Ilha do Governador, Tijuca or Copacabana.”
It was a sentiment echoed by protestor Guilherme Safadi who took part in Tuesday´s demonstration. “If they had been accompanied by lawyers, many would not have been imprisoned,” he told The Rio Times.
The escalating use of firearms in dealing with the protests has also become cause for concern following the shooting of a demonstrator in both arms last Tuesday. “The police are using real firearms now as opposed to rubber bullets,” continues Rocha. Folha de São Paulo reported two officers had fired live rounds into the air during the Teacher’s Day protest.
A joint manifesto signed by over seventy civil society organizations denounced the government’s “unwillingness to negotiate while increasing spending on weaponry with public funds… Weapons don’t guarantee rights,” it continued, “instead they generate violence, deaths and arbitrary actions.”