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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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BRAZIL: Anti-democratic acts exacerbate tensions

Brazil’s supreme court (STF) stands on the Praça dos Três Poderes in Brasília, opposite the Planalto palace, the seat of the federal government. The congressional building, which houses the senate and the chamber of deputies, stands to the west, completing a triangle designed to represent the independence and harmony between Brazil’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. This harmony is currently being severely tested, not least because of escalating attacks against the STF from radical right-wingers who support President Jair Bolsonaro. 

On the evening of 13 June, around 30 supporters of President Bolsonaro set off fireworks outside the STF building, mimicking blowing it up. The night before, a small group had tried to enter congress. The previous weekend, ‘bolsonaristas’ had marched to the STF carrying torches.

Calls for the return of dictatorship-era laws and for the closure of the STF and congress are common demands in the bolsonarista rallies which have been taking place every weekend in Brasília since the start of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Bolsonaro has frequently put in an appearance at these demonstrations, as have several of his cabinet ministers.  

Bolsonaristas’ anger at Brazil’s democratic institutions, although not new [WR-19-20], has been fuelled by the perception that these institutions are working against the president – particularly the STF, which has handed out rulings curtailing Bolsonaro’s denialist response to the coronavirus and authorising police investigations into his allies, as well as into the president himself. With simmering institutional tensions and underlying concerns about the state of democracy in the country, the recent escalation of the bolsonaristas’ anti-democratic attacks appears to have prompted a decisive response from those targeted by these attacks.

At a local level, Ibaneis Rocha, the governor of the Federal District against whom bolsonaristas have also railed, has temporarily closed off access to the Praça dos Três Poderes and the Esplanada dos Ministérios leading up to it. On 13 June, prior to the fireworks incident, Rocha’s government had ordered the dismantling of an encampment of armed bolsonaristas from a far-right group dubbed ‘300 do Brasil’, who had been occupying areas of the Esplanada for a month.

Meanwhile, the federal police (PF) has carried out a number of operations against individuals suspected of financing, promoting, or taking part in anti-democratic acts. These police operations are part of an investigation into the organisation of rallies promoting attacks on democracy, launched by the federal public prosecutor’s office (PGR) in April and involving the STF as some of the suspects concerned are elected officials (the government has always maintained that the regular pro-Bolsonaro rallies are spontaneous).

On 15 June Sara Giromini, a right-wing activist and member of ‘300 do Brasil’ who goes by the online name of ‘Sara Winter’, was detained, one of six arrest warrants that were issued on that day. On 17 June, the public prosecutors’ office (MPF) charged Giromini with the crimes of issuing threats and calumny against STF justice Alexandre de Moraes.

  • ‘Sara Winter’

Right-wing activist Sara Giromini, or ‘Sara Winter’, had publicly threatened STF justice Alexandre de Moraes after he authorised a police raid on her house last month. This was part of a separate STF-ordered investigation into the use of fake news to threaten the supreme court’s magistrates.

As part of the PGR-ordered investigation into anti-democratic acts, police carried out over 20 search and seizure warrants on 16 June at the addresses of Bolsonaro supporters. The individuals targeted include people linked to the political party that Bolsonaro has been trying to set up: Aliança pelo Brasil.

According to the PGR, one line of investigation is that those concerned by the raids have acted with public officials to finance activities that could qualify as crimes under the national security law, which defines crimes against the political and social order. Moraes has separately ordered that investigators be given access to the bank accounts of 11 bolsonarista lawmakers.

Escalating war of words

The fireworks outside the STF prompted an outcry and outpouring of support for the court’s magistrates, notably from former presidents. Bolsonaro was not so reactive, but for the first time in weeks, he did not attend the rally of supporters the following day, and later distanced himself from the controversial attendance of his Education Minister Abraham Weintraub.

However, the police operations against his allies did prompt a reaction, albeit not a direct attack on the court. “I cannot watch in silence while rights are violated and ideas are persecuted. I will therefore take all possible legal measures to protect the constitution and the freedom of Brazilians,” Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter on 16 June, concluding a thread in which he defended his government’s commitment to democracy and argued that attempts to suppress the expression of conservative opinions was authoritarian. The following day he criticised “abuses” and “political judgments” against him, while reassuring supporters that all will be resolved shortly.   

This language pre-empts an escalation in verbal sparring between the executive and the judiciary on legal interpretations of the constitution, a debate which has already arisen on the role of the armed forces. For the government, this is possibly a welcome distraction from scrutiny into its response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the various investigations currently closing in on the president’s allies.

Article 142

Following several implied threats of military intervention by members of government, STF Justice Luiz Fux emitted a preliminary injunction on 12 June regarding the interpretation of the armed forces’ role as outlined in article 142 of Brazil’s 1988 constitution. Fux said that the armed forces are a part of the state, not the government, and ruled that the military cannot be used as a moderating force between the different branches of government. President Bolsonaro had previously suggested invoking article 142 to “re-establish order in Brazil”. In comments to weekly magazine Veja on 12 June, the secretary of government, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, an army general, said it was “outrageous” to suggest Bolsonaro is mounting a coup, but seemed to warn his opponents “not to push it”.