SAO PAULO -- Police in Brazil are starting to employ a dictatorship-era national security law against critics of President Jair Bolsonaro, while lawyers and activists rally to provide them with legal help and accuse the government of trying to silence dissent.
On Friday, demonstrators challenged police in the capital by parading with anti-Bolsonaro signs a day after four protesters were detained. They had called the president “genocidal” for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and displayed a cartoon depicting him next to a Nazi swastika. Officers took no action Friday as about 40 people protested for an hour.
The national security law, which dates from 1983, near the end of the country's military dictatorship, makes it a crime to harm the heads of the three branches of government or expose them to danger. The vague measure has recently been used to detain or investigate Bolsonaro critics.
Geography teacher Katia Garcia said she showed up in front of the president's office Friday because the arrests had inspired her.
“They were jailed because the description ‘genocidal’ suits our president very well,” Garcia said, wearing a face mask and face shield. “He has contributed to our health care system collapsing, for the lack of vaccines. Police can’t silence us.”
There have been previous news-making charges against prominent critics of the president, including a newspaper columnist, a political cartoonist and a popular YouTube star, but the law is increasingly being employed against ordinary citizens. Courts haven't upheld any of the arrests so far, but lawyers are expressing alarm that the tactic is becoming commonplace.
Both demonstrations in Brasilia called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment due to his administration’s alleged failings in the pandemic, which has caused almost 290,000 deaths in Brazil. The country has reported nearly 3,000 deaths each day this week.
On several instances, the president has complained that he is being unfairly vilified, most recently Thursday night during a live Facebook broadcast.
“They call me a dictator. I want you to point at one thing I did in two years and two months that was autocratic,” he said while complaining about a newspaper column that used the word genocidal to describe him.
Brasilia police said Thursday that the four detained protesters violated the national security law “as they showed a Swastika in association to the symbol of the president of the Republic.” But Brazil’s federal police force, which decides whether cases brought by local police deserve to go ahead in national security crimes, dismissed the case and released three of the four demonstrators. One was held on an outstanding warrant from a previous case.
Federal police have conducted more than 80 investigations under the security law during Bolsonaro's first two years, and more than 10 in the first 45 days of 2021, according to the newspaper O Globo. The yearly average before the conservative leader took office was 11.
The cases appear to almost entirely target Bolsonaro’s critics, human rights organizations and activists say.
One case last year involved a sociologist and a businessman who paid for two billboards that insulted Bolsonaro by saying he wasn't worth a gnawed piece of fruit. That investigation was requested by Justice Minister André Mendonça, who called it a crime against the president’s reputation. It was dismissed in October.
On Friday night, unsuccessful presidential candidate Ciro Gomes said the federal police are investigating him for calling the president “a thief” in a radio interview in November. The request for the probe was signed by Bolsonaro himself, Gomes said on his social media channels.
“I don't particularly care about this act against me, but I think it is serious that Bolsonaro tries to intimidate opponents and adversaries,” the left-leaning Gomes said.
On Monday, police invoked the national security law to force Felipe Neto, a popular YouTuber, to give testimony after he referred to Bolsonaro as "genocidal" in one of his broadcasts. Federal police dismissed the case two days later amid a public outcry.
Neto, who was named by Time magazine lasts year as one of the world's 100 most influential people, was also targeted in November with allegations of corrupting minors. Those charges were also dropped.
“From the start, I knew that this attempt at intimidation was not aimed at scaring me. It was to scare the Brazilian people,” Neto told The Associated Press by phone.
“I have means to defend myself, but most teachers, journalists and members of civil society do not,” added Neto, who this week set up a legal defense fund to help anyone who faces similar charges for criticizing Bolsonaro and needs an attorney.
O Globo said in an editorial Friday that the spirit of the national security law runs counter to Brazil’s constitution in the promotion of civil liberties.
“The national security law should be revoked and replaced by a more modern tool that is capable of reconciliating the protection of the rule of law and the respect to individual rights,” the newspaper said. “Among those are the full — and essential — freedom of speech.”
——— Associated Press photojournalist Eraldo Peres in Brasilia contributed to this report.