Brazil 2014: The fight is even fiercer off the pitch

By Atila Roque, Director at Amnesty International Brazil

Brazil is about to host the biggest football frenzy on the planet, where teams from around the world fight for the Cup every fan wants to hold.

But as Messi, Neymar and Rooney come face to face, outside Brazil’s shiny new stadiums another more serious standoff is taking place – one in which the ‘rules’ are being openly flouted.

Since June 2013, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers of cities and towns across Brazil demanding better public services, including transport, among other rights. Many of them complain that authorities are paying too much attention to FIFA’s demands and too little to the needs of their own people.

The response of the authorities has been nothing short of disgraceful.

Military police units sent to keep the protests “under control” have not hesitated for a second before shooting tear gas at peaceful protesters – in one case even inside a hospital. They have fired rubber bullets and beat men and women with batons despite them posing no threat.

Hundreds have been injured in the course of the many protests that have taken place since then. They include Sérgio Andrade da Silva, a 32-year-old photographer who lost his eye after being hit by a rubber bullet during a mass demonstration in São Paulo in June 2013.

Left with only one eye, Sérgio, who is married and has two children, now finds it difficult to work. So far he has not received an official apology or offer of compensation from the authorities, let alone any investigation into the acts of the security forces that led to his injury.

In another case in January this year, another demonstrator – university student Vinicius Duarte – was left with a broken jaw and nose after being viciously beaten by police. At the time, Vinicius was standing inside a hotel, taking shelter from the tear gas shot by police outside.

The examples go on. They are scandalous, but far from surprising.

While there have been some acts of violence committed by small groups among the generally peaceful protesters, the disproportionate response by the security forces has further reduced the public space for those who want to express their right to express their dissent through peaceful demonstrations. The accidental killing of the cameraman Santiago Andrade, in February 2014, by a firework launched by protesters has since then been manipulated to criminalize protests.

Brazil’s security forces have an extremely poor record when it comes to dealing with protests. In fact, although local officials in cities including São Paulo have announced internal investigations into allegations of excessive use of force by the police during protests, as far as we know, to date no one has been subjected to criminal or disciplinary proceedings.

That impunity, combined with the lack of training for officers who simply do not know the legal limits when it comes to using force, results in a dangerous cocktail in which nearly anyone walking on the streets during a protest risks being injured.

Authorities in some cities have even announced they are considering relying on the military, already in place to support the World Cup, to police demonstrations expected to take place when the world’s eyes are trained on the pitch. Not a good idea given the lack of training of the country’s military in policing roles.

As Brazil prepares to host the biggest sporting event of the year, “complaining” is often seen as trying to “spoil the party” – and authorities will stop at nothing to ensure the celebration goes well.

A raft of laws meant to prevent and punish organized crime, for example, has been wrongly used to prosecute people accused of acting violently and/or attacking private property during the protests.

In one case in São Paulo, Brazil’s National Security Law, which dates back to the days of the military regime from 1964 to 1985, was applied to justify arresting and interrogating protesters.

Several new law proposals, including a counter-terrorism law, are being discussed in the Congress, risking further criminalization of protesters.

If passed, it will establish a broad definition of terrorism which would, among other things, extend to damage to goods and essential services. Many are concerned the new law might be misused against demonstrators.

Proposals to ban the use of masks during all demonstrations are also being discussed.

Yet it is far from clear why tougher legislation is needed. Brazil already has an array of legal tools to deal with violations committed during demonstrations.

Instead of passing harsher laws, what Brazil needs is to develop a well-trained security force that can properly police demonstrations in line with international standards, and systems to hold to account security officers who step out of line and violate human rights. This is necessary not just during the World Cup, but beyond it.

For the month starting on 12 June, much of the world will turn their TVs on, switch off from reality, and follow the every move of dozens of men chasing a ball in cities around Brazil.

But Amnesty International will also be keeping an eye on the chilling action taking place off the pitch. No referees will be present as the police and protesters square off, but we’ll be ready to blow the whistle when we spot foul play.