Brazil, the world is watching

If Rafael Braga Vieira watches the game in his hometown tonight, it’ll be from his prison cell. When the Olympics come to the city in a couple of years, he might be allowed to watch the events in his cell too. And the World Cup after that.

Rafael Braga Vieira Rafael’s crime? ‘Carrying explosives without authorisation’. Rafael was carrying two bottles of cleaning products when police arrested and detained him. While they interrogated him, Rafael says police beat him and shouted racist insults at him.

Rafael’s real crime was to be on the streets of Rio de Janeiro on 20 June last year, while hundreds of thousands of people were making their way home from one of the biggest protests the city had ever seen. Protesters were dispersed by police using tear gas and rubber bullets. The mood was tense.

Rafael, meanwhile, was leaving the abandoned house in Lapa where he was sleeping rough, and heading to his aunt’s house. He was making some money by peddling used goods on the streets. That day he’d found cleaning products, which he thought he’d give to his aunt. They were in his bag when the police stopped him.

Rafael was 25, homeless, black. He claimed he had nothing to do with the protests, wasn’t connected to any of the demonstrators making their way home. Later, the forensic department concluded that the chemicals in the products couldn’t possibly have been used as explosives. Apparently that didn’t count – but Rafael’s previous convictions for petty theft did – when he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment.

So far, Rafael is the only person to have been tried and convicted of criminal activity in connection with the protests that have raged across Brazil for over a year.

Graffiti in Rio de Janeiro by Captain Borderline, depicting Rafael Braga Vieira as the World Cup trophyGraffiti in Rio de Janeiro by Captain Borderline depicting Rafael Braga Vieira as the World Cup trophy

A million people protested in cities across Brazil that day. What began as small demonstrations against a rise in transport fares in May 2013 had by then gathered momentum and grown to cover dissatisfaction with inadequate public health and education services, government corruption, the brutal eviction of communities in ‘cleaning up’ cities preparing to host the World Cup and the Olympics.

While a minority of protesters have vandalised property and committed arson, the vast majority are civilians peacefully calling for change in the country where they pay their taxes, elect their political representatives, and where they are entitled to peacefully gather and express dissatisfaction.

Again and again peaceful protesters have been met with unnecessary aggression from a police force that has in the last year repeatedly sprayed tear gas into confined spaces - from hospital corridors to hotel lobbies - without reason, fired rubber bullets at people who posed no threat, and beat defenceless protesters with batons until they bled. (‘Techniques’ that I doubt came in advice from Oldham’s Grandmaster Kevin Lloyd.)

Armed police storm a São Paulo hotel lobby and spray tear gas on 25 January 2014Armed police storm a São Paulo hotel lobby where peaceful protesters are sheltering and spray tear gas at them on 25 January 2014

Bystanders are not safe. Photographer Sergio Andrade was documenting protests against rising bus fares in São Paolo exactly a year ago when police shot with him in the face with a rubber bullet. He lost his eye. Sergio says police ‘fired tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades in all directions. It seemed to be a premeditated, organised effort to prevent the march from taking place’.

Journalist Guiliana Vallone was also shot in the eye with a rubber bullet while reporting the same protest. Luckily for her, she was wearing glasses. She says the shot was intentional. ‘I wasn’t protesting. There were no protesters confronting police in the street. He simply pointed his weapon at me and fired. I saw him looking at me, but never imagined he was going to fire.’

It’s not just police violence we’re concerned about. There is a repeated pattern of arresting hundreds of people on spurious grounds following each protest – for 'crimes' including carrying flags, banners, ink, vinegar… Humberto Caporalli, for example, was arrested by a plain clothes police officer after photographing an education protest in São Paulo in October. He’s been charged with a plethora of crimes linked vaguely to terror charges and could face 23 years in prison. He’s only 24 now.

Police officers detaining a protester in São Paulo on 18 June 2013Police officers detain a protester in São Paulo on 18 June 2013

And while protesters are now banned from wearing masks or covering their faces at political protests, police are unidentifiable in the mass. During protests last June, many policemen and women did not display identifying tags showing their name and rank, as they are required to; some were seen removing their identity badges during the protests.

A lack of identification leads to a lack of prosecution for violent acts and improper policing. In São Paulo alone, the police force has opened – and closed – 21 allegations of violations by their staff during protests in the second half of 2013. Not a single police officer was disciplined after the investigations.

And the protests rumble on right now. In São Paulo, at least five people have been injured - three of them journalists covering the protests - as military police beat the crowd and sprayed tear gas at them. Ask police authorities to stop the violent crackdown - send a tweet now:

Tweet .@governosp @SegurancaSP Military police must stop excessive force against protests in Sâo Paulo!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');

Thankfully, a new terrorism law that had potential to make street protests a crime has not been waived through Congress in time for the World Cup. Brazil did however pass the General World Cup Law back in 2012, banning demonstrations that are not ‘festive and friendly’ during the event. It’ll be interesting to see how that’s used over the coming weeks.

For the last year, Brazil’s tussle between sport and civil discontent mixed with police brutality has been widely documented on our screens. But when millions around the world watch the opening ceremony tonight, they’re unlikely to see cheerful mascot Fuleco being tear-gassed and beaten to a furry pulp; the images beamed from inside and outside stadiums remain worlds apart. What if that wasn’t the case – and Brazil’s police were refereeing the beautiful game the way they have refereed recent protests?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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