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New anti-terrorism law threatens Brazil’s civil society


Supreme Federal Court of Brazil.

Human rights could be undermined, reports Melanie Hargreaves.

Despite a terrorist attack never hitting the streets of Brazil, some of its conservative leaders are on a quest to place their homeland within the ranks of nations that have anti-terrorism laws on the statute books.

However, while most would assume terrorists to be individuals or groups using violence or intimidation for political ends, it is feared the list of those deemed to be terrorists in Brazil will include civil-society organizations seeking social, political, economic and environmental justice, and individuals attending public protests.

The definition of terrorism in the proposed new legislation remains vague, referring to the ‘provoking of generalized terror or panic’, a subjective concept that has raised suspicions about how widely the law may be applied.

Earlier this month, a group of UN Special Rapporteurs said the new law was too broadly drafted and could restrict fundamental freedoms.

‘We fear that the definition of the crime established by the draft law may result in ambiguities and confusion as to what the State considers a terrorist offence, potentially undermining the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms,’ the experts said.

‘We regret that the current draft excluded a previous article establishing an important safeguard that would protect participation in political demonstrations and social movements from falling under the legislation’s scope.’

Concern about the manner in which the law could be applied is the result of a crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech that has been increasingly apparent as an economic recession bites.

In the run up to the FIFA World Cup in 2014, thousands of people took to the streets in protest over a bus-fare price rise, forced rehoming and displacement.

In response, the government introduced a Law on Criminal Organizations and the result was to restrict the movements of social activists, leaving space for ambiguous interpretation of rights such as freedom of expression and association. Consequently, the day before the World Cup Final, 23 activists were arrested and jailed.

And at a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro last year, some 200 protesters were arrested, with many later charged under legislation originally intended to target organized crime.

In addition to the proposed anti-terrorism law, the Brazilian government wants to introduce another law that would threaten environmental regulations and the territorial rights of indigenous communities.

Regulations covering development in coastal areas and in currently protected natural areas and historic sites would be relaxed. A review of the legal framework currently protecting indigenous land is also are proposed. The atmosphere of political and economic instability is set against a growing backlash by conservative groups against the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, who was herself jailed in the early 1970s for leftwing activities.

Over the past year, the groups have launched numerous protests and acts of violence while calling for her to step down.

The protests have been tinged with prejudice against poor communities and the government’s social policies, with some even suggesting that people receiving ‘bolsa familia’ (family welfare) shouldn’t have the right to vote. The prejudice against the poor extends to women, black and indigenous people, and the gay community.

Social policies introduced since 2003 have benefited more than 30 million people and have helped to turn Brazil into a global economic player. Yet inequality continues to plague the country, with education, health services and social housing available to some but not all. And many public policies and governmental programmes have helped to create consumers rather than citizens concerned with the ‘res-publica’ (common good).

Civil society is fighting back against conservative pressure. In August, some 75,000 women took to the streets of Brasilia demonstrating in favour of democracy and demanding the protection of social policies and women’s rights. Trade unions and social movements have also demonstrated, urging the government to address the economic crisis.

Nonetheless, the crackdown on civil society in what the Congress sees as a move against ‘enemies of the state’ – individuals, groups, organizations and social movements considered ‘opposition forces’ – raises fears that dictatorship, consigned to the shadows in the mid 1980s, could start to re-emerge.

Melanie Hargreaves is Christian Aid’s Press Officer.

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