Bolsonaro threatens to criminalise social, trade unions and religious movements in Brazil

By Patrick Foley, Brazil Solidarity Initiative and member of Hornsey and Wood Green CLP

In October, Jair Bolsonaro, a former captain in the Brazil’s military dictatorship, infamous for his support for authoritarianism, homophobia and racism won the second-round vote of the presidential election, securing his place as the next leader of Latin America’s largest, most diverse and most populous country.

While his election shocked progressives around the world, it is the millions of LGBT, black, minority, indigenous and trade unionist Brazilians who are now living in fear of what Bolsonaro’s presidency will bring about.

Yet even before Bolsonaro has taken power, he has placed the right to protest under imminent threat. The grounds for these repressive measures have already been set in motion with the help of the outgoing right-wing and extremely controversial government.

A few days before the second round of the Presidential elections, President Temer issued a decree to establish an Intelligence Task Force (ITF). While the ITFs stated purpose is to “combat criminal organisations”, its formation has raised fears across the international legal community.

The ITF is made up of mainly of representatives of the Armed Forces and coordinated by the Chief of Staff of the Institutional Security Office of the President, General Sergio Etchegoyen.

The State of Sao Paulo Lawyers’ Union have pointed out that this decree directly violates the Brazilian Federal Constitution by both changing the Armed Forces’ established purpose and by breaching federal law provisions for access to information at all governmental levels.

On top of this, draft legislation put before Brazil’s National Congress aims to expand the definitions of “criminal organisations” and “terrorist acts” in such a way that political protests and demonstrations can be treated as “terrorist acts” in the future. In effect this legislation will criminalise social groups and activists that organise demonstrations against Bolsonaro’s extreme-right agenda.

Under the Brazil’s constitution, the following cannot be classed as terrorism: “individual and collective behaviour of people in political demonstrations, social, trade union, religious, class or professional movements in order to make social claims or demands, aiming to contest, criticise, protest against or support issues so as to defend rights, guarantees and constitutional freedoms”.

Yet despite this measure going against the constitution, it is likely to be introduced and acted upon when Bolsonaro’s administration comes to power. It is feared that the new Intelligence Task Force could also be used for the same objectives.

Considering Bolsonaro’s open support for Brazil’s military dictatorship and its use of torture and extrajudicial killings, coupled with his disturbing pronouncements during his campaign, these are very grave developments.

In one video to his supporters, he pledged to launch a frontal assault to purge the country of his “red” left-wing political opponents, saying “either they go overseas or they go to jail…. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

These and other remarks present the terrifying possibility of authoritarianism returning to the country. Brazil’s past military dictatorship ruled from 1964 to 1985, following a coup d’état by members of the Brazilian Armed Forces supported by the US government.

The dictatorship brought in a new, restrictive constitution, and cracked down on freedom of speech and political opposition. Hundreds of regime opponents were killed or disappeared, while thousands more were tortured.

With this history, there is widespread concern about the extremely serious consequences that may flow from these illegal and unconstitutional measures. Bolsonaro is already on record saying that he hopes to see the activities of groups including the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) and the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) classified as “terrorism”.

In response, the MTST leader, Guilherme Boulos, has promised to defend Brazilian democracy: “There will be resistance, there will be opposition, there will be street mobilisations. Our voices will not be silenced.”

Looking more widely, the State of Sao Paulo Lawyers’ Union has called on all democrats across the world to show solidarity to social, trades union and religious movements in Brazil, as well as with any other movements whose common goal is freedom of expression in Brazil.

That’s why we’ve launched the Brazil Solidarity Initiative here in Britain to stand shoulder to shoulder with the millions of Brazilians defending social progress, human rights and equality.

• For more information and to show your support visit
• Join Chris Williamson MP, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Julia Felmanas of the Brazilian Workers’ Party and more at the Latin America Conference on Saturday December 1 at Congress House, London. Tickets and info at