on the world: a view on human rights
On 13 July 2014, all eyes were on the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as millions of people worldwide watched Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in the FIFA World Cup final. What few people outside of Brazil knew, however, is the day before, on 12 July, Rio police carried out dozens of arbitrary arrests, to prevent violent actions at demonstrations during the World Cup final.
Charges were brought against 23 people, later released on bail, of belonging to an armed gang and plotting violent attacks on the day of the World Cup final. Amnesty International described the arrests as part of “a clear attempt to intimidate protesters”. A year on, no convictions have been secured, and the charges still stand.
People are not footballs
Protest and draconian security measures were the major attractions off the pitch of what is reported to be the most expensive World Cup ever, costing well over $11 billion, with a budget of almost $1 billion for security alone. On the streets of Rio, outside the World Cup final, the army, tanks and police greeted FIFA’s “festive and friendly” event.
Rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades were used against protesters in the run up to and during the tournament; drones and weapons were provided by Israeli military companies, special Robocop-style suits were given to some of the 170,000 security staff involved and training for the military police came from the French police and Blackwater (now operating as Academi).
FIFA’s requirements also meant the introduction of new laws, criminalising lawful protest in vague terms, and even creating “the criminal offence of terrorism to be applied to protests during the World Cup”. FIFA and the media were keen to push the image of Brazil as overrun by crime and rioting, even though the 2010 World Cup took place in South Africa, a fellow BRICS giant with a high crime and murder rate, where the government spent less than 10% of the amount Brazil spent on security.
The protests of the Brazilian people were not unreasonable. In a country with an acute housing shortage, more than 250,000 people were forced to move, sometimes through intimidation tactics, to make way for private developments and infrastructure projects. Whole favelas were turned into war zones under the control of the military police and army.
In June 2013, when demonstrations against public transport price rises in Sao Paulo turned violent, it led to other similar protests in a number of cities which became larger and broader covering a wide range of social problems, from housing and indigenous rights to police brutality and fair wages. The violent response to these protests was a pretext for what was to come.
Although footing the bill for the World Cup from their taxes, ordinary Brazilians will not benefit as much as private corporations. Such concerns and frustrations are not unique to Brazil and manifested themselves in protests against the ‘Corporate Olympics’ in London in 2012.
By the time the World Cup started on 12 June 2014, the size and number of protests had drastically fallen. Nonetheless, violence continued with tear gas and rubber bullets used in protests in Sao Paulo and 6 people, including two journalists, were injured in Rio on the first day.
The international media questioned where the Brazilian protesters had gone, and why. While the Washington Post conceded, “Demonstrations increasingly end in violence from police and protestors, scaring many off”, few questioned the security apparatus and legislative provisions introduced to criminalise lawful protest.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for “thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of excessive force by police”, and Article 19 stated that “the state’s response to these demonstrations has been one of increasing repression and violence, more suited to Brazil’s years of military dictatorship.”
I predict a riot?
Months of legitimate protests culminated in the arrest of 28 activists on 12 July as part of Operational Firewall 2, going back to September 2013 and conducted by the DRCI (Bureau for the Repression of Computer Crimes). Homes were raided, personal items seized and parents were questioned about their children’s activities. The arrested, including minors, were held in maximum security prisons, including the notorious Bangu complex. Not everyone knew each other; the common denominator was having attended protests in the past and membership of several left-wing organisations the media would portray as dangerous and violent.
On 18 July, charges of belonging to an armed gang and plotting violent attacks on the day of the World Cup final, including bomb attacks and threats to kill police officers, were brought against 23 people in total. The charges related to alleged future actions that never materialised.
The evidence, presented in an extensive 6000-page file, was largely acquired through wiretapping phones and monitoring activists’ social media usage. The only weapon found was a gun at the home of one of the minors detained, belonging to her security guard father, and licensed for work purposes.
No bomb making equipment was found; books and leaflets were seized and black coloured clothing was taken as evidence of membership of an anarchist black bloc. The incriminating messages on Facebook provided no conclusive evidence and no specific crime or plot has been alleged. Other evidence was taken from testimonies of individuals with personal grudges against the defendants.
In short, no actual evidence of intent to commit a crime, or of any related action, was found. There was simply trial by media and a highly politicised and questionable judicial procedure. On 22 July, those still in detention were released under a habeas corpus ruling, with restrictions. Following release, one of the defendants, a lawyer, unsuccessfully sought political asylum in Uruguay.
Lawyers for the 23 defendants, considered political prisoners by sympathisers and Brazilian human rights NGOs, have also been vilified and harassed. On 18 May, a judge suspended the case against all 23 pending a ruling by the competent judge on some of the charges related to the minors involved. The charges remain and the case is ongoing.
Igor Mendes: Poster boy for a generation
One of the leaders of this leaderless protest movement, similar to many others worldwide in recent years, identified by the investigation is Igor Mendes da Silva, a geography student at Rio de Janeiro State University.
A member of the left-wing social movements FIP (Independent Popular Front, Rio de Janeiro) and the MEPR (Popular Revolutionary Student Movement), he had taken part in demonstrations in support of various social issues. When he was arrested on 12 July, the police found nothing incriminating against him. The main evidence against him comes from the testimony of a former FIP activist.
On 3 December 2014, Igor Mendes was arrested at his home early in the morning; on 15 October 2014, along with two other defendants who went into hiding to avoid arrest, he attended a cultural event to mark Teachers’ Day in front of the City Council. The judge deemed this event a public meeting, and a breach of the terms of his release in July 2014, justifying his arrest and imprisonment weeks later.
In a number of his letters from prison to activists, he did not advocate the use of violence and highlighted the conditions of his fellow prisoners at Bangu: severe overcrowding, daily beatings by prison guards (“I saw prisoners being beaten for asking for water”), and treatment that he said amounted to the “torture” of prisoners.
The suspension of the case against the 23 defendants in May paved the way for a new habeas corpus application by his lawyers which was granted in June, this time without restriction on the freedom of association. The judgment concerned all three for whom an arrest warrant was issued in December 2014. He was released on 25 June 2015 and his two co-defendants emerged from hiding.
Vilified by the mass media as a violent thug, he won an award from a human rights organisation in March and more than 200 supporters attended a meeting he and his co-defendants spoke at upon their release.
All eyes on Rio
The arrest of these activists, and their vilification, was clearly to send the message that the Brazilian government and its corporatist agenda will not tolerate lawful popular protest against its plans. For Dilma Rousseff’s government, there was more at stake than football matches; in October 2014, her party narrowly won the national elections, and 2015 has seen the largest protests ever.
Concerns about the World Cup and corruption are certainly not misplaced either: recent corruption claims have been made against FIFA officials and a 2011 e-mail revealed by Wikileaks shows Brazilian government officials conceded by then that over-billing was probable for the event in spite of the alleged transparency of the tournament.
As Brazil gears up for the 2016 Rio Olympics Games, many of the same tensions remain – forced evictions to make way for private developments, favelas under police and military control. This time security assistance is being provided by the Russian FSB (federal security service), which replaced the KGB. Some of last year’s stadiums already lie unused.
Sport is a beautiful thing. It has the power to unite people. But sport is not the goal of powerful and corrupt sporting federations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. The corporate agenda dictates and holds thrall over host nations.
On 12 July this year, activists will take to the streets of Rio to mark the anniversary of these arrests and to highlight the many social issues that are no closer to being resolved.
Update on 02 August 2015: Take action in support of lawyer Marino D’Icarahy!
Marino D’Icarahy is a lawyer for the 23 activists arrested in Rio before the World Cup final last year; he has consistently criticised the political nature of the charges against them. He is a long-term advocate of human rights and the freedom to protest of activists in Brazil. As a result, he has received death threats, has had privileged legal correspondence via e-mail and telephone with his clients tampered with, and is subject to two court cases for having allegedly slandered Judge Flavio Itabaiana, hearing the case against the activists and who ordered the detention of three of ,and has had a similar claim brought against him by the Brazil Bar Association (OAB), Rio de Janeiro section.
The International Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) is calling for support for D’Icarahy and is asking for message to be sent, via e-mail, to the individuals below asking for them to stop persecuting and harassing Marino D’Icarahy and preventing him from performing his professional duties in accordance with Brazilian and international standards. Defending human rights is NOT a crime!
1) Presidente do Tribunal Regional Rio de Janeiro:
Dr. Luiz Fernando Ribeiro de Carvalho –
2) Juiz da 29ª Vara (where the legal process is)
Dr. Marcos Antonio Ribeiro de Moura Brito
3) Comissão de Prerrogativas da OAB/RJ
Dr João Pedro Pádua
4) Felipe Santa Cruz / OAB Rio,
5) OAB Nacional
Dr Marcus Vinícius Furtado