Friday, February 14, 2014

Brazil Lawmakers Back Controversial 'Anti-Terrorism' Law

The aftermath of the death of a cameraman covering a violent protest in Rio de Janeiro has seen a renewed push by Brazilian congressmen to pass a controversial anti-terrorism law before the World Cup. Its language is alarmingly vague, however, and the timing makes the bill seem more inspired by political than security factors.

The Monday death of cameraman Santiago Andrade from injuries sustained while covering a protest last week has led Brazil’s Senate to prioritize a pending vote on an anti-terrorism bill authored by a joint upper and lower house committee following protests in November. Chamber of Deputies President Henrique Eduardo Alves has echoed this urgency, and O Globo reports that the senior lawmaker is advocating for various similar bills in the lower house to be reconciled and voted on next week.

But while its proponents argue that the legislation will provide a much-needed legal framework to address acts of terrorism in the country, the Senate bill contains a troublingly vague description of “terrorism,” and mandates disproportionately strict penalties.

According to text of the bill (.pdf available here), terrorism is defined as “causing or instilling terror or widespread panic” through the harm or attempted harm of members of the public, officials or “essential services” (buses, hospitals, infrastructure, etc.). If passed, the law would require those convicted of an act of terrorism to between 15 and 40 years in prison. As Folha de S. Paulo reports, this is more than the 12-30 year-sentence reserved for committing homicides in the country, and far more than the six-year mandatory sentence for manslaughter.

Critics of the legislation argue that the real motive for the law is to dissuade mass protests in the country, particularly during the upcoming World Cup. In a front-page cover which was widely shared on social media, the Brasilia-based Correio Braziliense newspaper likened the bill to a modern-day Institutional Act Number Five (“AI-5”), the infamous executive order which consolidated the power of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1968. Folha columnist Helio Schwartsman, by contrast, found the logic behind the bill to be much more banal, the result of lawmakers trying to give the impression that they are addressing violent protests.

In an open letter to Senator Jorge Viana, one of the leading supporters of the bill in the Workers’ Party (PT), human rights advocate and Open Society Foundations Regional Director Pedro Abramovay is especially critical of the bill. Describing its mandatory sentencing as ineffective and inhumane, Abramovay argues that the Senate legislation risks starting a “new era” in Brazil, in which protests like the emerging anarchist Black Bloc movement are unnecessarily dealt with through the lens of the global “War on Terror.”

Senate PT advisor Marcelo Zero has another thoughtful critique of the legislation for weekly news magazine ISTOÉ, in which he discusses parallels with anti-terrorism  laws used to target Mapuche activists in Chile, as well as Britain’s anti-terror law which allows police to detain suspects without presenting evidence of wrongdoing. He also points to similarities between the arguments used to justify an anti-terrorism law in Brazil and the arguments offered by U.S. authorities for the NSA’s electronic surveillance in the country, calling on lawmakers to exercise “caution” in debating the bill.

This criticism appears to have at least registered with officials. On Wednesday, PT President Rui Falcão released a statement noting that the party was closely following the debate, and acknowledging that a “vague” anti-terrorism law would be a setback for Brazil’s democracy.  

News Briefs
  • In a development with serious repercussions for human rights cases in Latin America, Spanish lawmakers voted on Tuesday to curb the application of universal jurisdiction in domestic courts, El Pais reports. As The Guardian notes, this provision has allowed Spanish judges to investigate human rights abuses across the region, from Argentina to Guatemala, and activists fear it will put an end to ongoing efforts to prosecute those responsible for the 1989 murders of Spanish Jesuit priests in El Salvador.
  • Time Magazine has published a cover story on Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, offering a largely positive take on his attempts to reform the country’s energy sector and rein in drug-fueled violence. The cover has generated controversy in Mexico, with a number of his critics creating mock versions poking fun at his administration.
  • Another cover story on a country in the region has also sparked backlash this week: The Economist’s “Parable of Argentina,” which offers a highly critical overview of the country’s economic policies over what it refers to as “a century of decline.”
  • Yesterday brought good news for the peace process in Colombia. After three months of dialogue on the subject of the illegal drug trade, government and FARC negotiators have announced that they have made progress. As Semana reports, both parties said in a joint communiqué that they had agreed on a rough draft of the first point of the agenda item, which pertains to substituting illicit crops.
  • Today marks one month since São Paulo Mayor Mayor Fernando Haddad announced the launch of “Operation Open Arms,” an ambitious new program meant to address the city’s crack epidemic by providing addicts with housing, food and work opportunities. In a visit to the troubled “Cracolândia” slum on Wednesday to track its progress, Haddad announced that the program’s main offices would be open later (until 10pm) in order to provide wider access to the program. The mayor has characterized the program so far as a success, telling reporters this week that 386 individuals had registered their participation so far, and that there had been a “90 percent reduction” in the flow of the drug to Cracolândia, though the source for this figure is unclear. G1 reported late last month that local health officials say 53 addicts have voluntarily begun treatment since the program began.  
  • In another pioneering piece of drug policy in the region, Mexico City lawmakers finally presented a long-awaited marijuana decriminalization initiative. While previous media reports suggested that the bill would only authorize “dispensaries” to provide information on marijuana use, and not safe access to the drug itself, this appears to be incorrect. As Excelsior reports, the legislation presented yesterday does in fact go beyond marijuana decriminalization to the authorization of cannabis distribution in officially sanctioned offices. While the AP claims that the bill would “allow stores in the city of 8 million to sell marijuana in amounts up to 5 grams,” the exact nature of the distribution system remains to be defined, and would be regulated by local officials. For more on the legislation, see this note by the Tranform Drug Policy Foundation, which explain that two bills were in fact presented yesterday, one of which was sent to the federal Congress.
  • The Venezuelan government’s decision to seek the arrest of opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has generated a wave of press coverage in U.S. media, earning mention in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The latter profiles remarks on Lopez’s alleged misdeeds by foreign minister Elias Jaua,  who accused him of directing a “well-trained” group of followers to carry out a “coordinated and massive attack” on the national prosecutor’s office.
  • David Smilde of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights offers a concise overview of the February 12 student protests in Caracas and their significance, sorting through the political spin by both the government and the opposition to place blame on both for fueling the subsequent violence. Particularly interesting, however, is his argument against directly holding the government responsible for arming and organizing Chavista “colectivos,” on the grounds that they are more likely acting autonomously in an effort to “demonstrate their affinity and value” in a manner similar to the actions of student extremists and Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution. Reuters has more on the occasionally tense relationship between the government and colectivos.
  • Writing for InSight Crime, Mexico reporter Dudley Althaus notes the government’s divergent approaches to dealing with militia groups in the state of Michoacan, where it has largely cooperated with them, and in Guerrero, where police and soldiers have been dispatched to halt their march on the state capital.