Protesters against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro defied police in the capital on Friday, a day after the leader’s opponents were jailed again under a dictatorship-era national security rule.
Four protesters were arrested on Thursday after labeling Bolsonaro’s treatment of the coronavirus pandemic as “genocidal” and showing a cartoon portraying the president as a Nazi. On Friday, however, police stood passively by as about 40 people staged an hour-long anti-Bolsonaro rally.
The national security law, enacted near the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1983, makes it illegal to hurt or reveal the heads of the three branches of government. Bolsonaro opponents have recently been detained or prosecuted under the broad description.
Katia Garcia, a geography instructor, said she went to the president’s office on Friday because the arrests had motivated her.
“They were imprisoned because the term ‘genocidal’ perfectly describes our president,” Garcia said, wearing a face mask and a face shield. “He has led to the collapse of our health-care system due to a shortage of vaccines. We will not be silenced by the police.”
Previous charges against prominent opponents of the president, such as a newspaper columnist, a political cartoonist, and a famous YouTube star, have made headlines, but the law is increasingly being used against ordinary people. So far, no court has upheld any of the arrests, but lawyers are worried that the tactic is becoming more popular.
Both demonstrators in Brasilia demanded Bolsonaro’s impeachment over his administration’s supposed failures in dealing with the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of nearly 290,000 Brazilians. This week, nearly 3,000 people have died in the world.
The president has argued on many occasions that he is wrongly vilified, most recently on Thursday night during a live Facebook broadcast.
“They refer to me as a tyrant. I want you to name one thing I did in the last two years and two months that was autocratic,” he said, referring to a newspaper column that characterized him as genocidal.
According to Brasilia police, the four arrested demonstrators violated the national security law by “showing a Swastika in connection with the president of the Republic’s symbol.” The case was dismissed by Brazil’s federal police force, which determines if charges brought by local police in national security offences should be prosecuted. Three of the four demonstrators were released. One of them was being held on a warrant from a previous case.
According to the newspaper O Globo, federal police performed more than 80 inquiries under the protection legislation during Bolsonaro’s first two years in office, and more than ten in the first 45 days of 2021. Before the conservative leader took office, the annual average was 11.
Human rights groups and advocates say the lawsuits tend to be almost exclusively aimed at Bolsonaro’s opponents.
A sociologist and a businessman paid for two billboards last year that ridiculed Bolsonaro by claiming he wasn’t worth a gnawed piece of fruit. Justice Minister André Mendonça ordered the inquiry, calling it a “crime against the president’s credibility.” It was tossed out in October.
Ciro Gomes, an unsuccessful presidential candidate, said on Friday night that federal authorities are investigating him for calling President Donald Trump a “thief” in a radio interview in November. According to Gomes’ social media pages, Bolsonaro himself signed the request for the inquiry.
“I am unconcerned about this act against me, but I believe it is serious that Bolsonaro is attempting to bully critics and adversaries,” Gomes, a left-leaning politician, said.
Police used the national security law on Monday to compel Felipe Neto, a prominent YouTuber, to testify after he called Bolsonaro “genocidal” in one of his broadcasts. After a national uproar, federal authorities dropped the lawsuit two days later.
Neto, who was called one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine last year, was also accused of corrupting minors in November. The charges against him were also dismissed.
“I knew right away that this bullying effort was not intended to intimidate me. Neto told The Associated Press over the phone that the target was to scare the Brazilian people.
“I have the resources to defend myself, but most teachers, journalists, and members of civil society do not,” said Neto, who earlier this week established a legal defense fund to assist those facing similar charges for criticizing Bolsonaro and in need of legal representation.
The spirit of the national security statute, according to O Globo, runs contrary to Brazil’s constitution in terms of civil liberties promotion.
“The national security law should be abolished and replaced by a more modern instrument capable of reconciling the rule of law and individual rights protection,” the newspaper reported. “Among them is complete — and necessary — freedom of expression.”