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Brazil police in spotlight as World Cup looms

Amnesty International report on excessive use of force by Brazil's police raises concerns ahead of football tournament.

Last updated: 05 Jun 2014 23:18
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Military police say violent protests are the biggest threat during the World Cup [Elizabeth Gorman/Al Jazeera]

Brasilia, Brazil - Violent protests are the number-one threat during the World Cup tournament, according to military police officials in Rio de Janeiro.

But deficiencies in policing such as inadequate training and lack of accountability have raised serious concerns among rights groups that even peaceful protests could be "severely undermined" during the games.

In a new report, human rights watchdog Amnesty International reveals its investigation into cases of excessive use of force by Brazil's police since protests rocked the country one year ago. The demonstrations saw hundreds of thousands of people protesting against transit fare hikes, failing public services and spending for mega-events such as the World Cup.

Hundreds of protesters were detained, arrested and reportedly beaten, and two journalists reported being shot in the eye by rubber bullets. Police allegedly dispersed crowds taking shelter in an emergency room with tear gas bombs, causing it to disperse inside the hospital.

"We have documented many cases where protesters were injured or police misused rubber bullets against members of the press or against people who weren't doing anything," said Renata Neder, a human rights adviser for Amnesty International based in Rio de Janeiro.

According to the report, no action was taken against police officers.

Neder worries that excessive use of force by the police will increase as protests ratchet up during the World Cup. A recent Pew Research survey found that "72 percent of Brazilians are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country, up from 55 percent just weeks before the demonstrations began in June 2013". 

Brazil hit by widespread protests

"It's not only the police, but we also will have the military forces and the national forces of security in the host cities doing police work, including in the protest," she said. "We have a record of abuse of these forces acting in police roles in urban areas. So we are worried about military forces being deployed in host cities because of their poor record regarding that."

Security forces for the World Cup are under the control of Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro's secretary for security affairs, and they are headquartered at the city's integrated command and control centre.

All the security chiefs, including Beltrame, will be present at this centre during every World Cup match, according to a police spokesman, in order to be able to make quick decisions should major problems arise. 

This week, the city will also inaugurate a justice tribunal "to protect the fundamental rights of protesters" in conjunction with civil and military police, according to Brazil's Ministry of Justice.

The Centre of Emergency Judicial Service fast-tracks police inquiries during protests in cases of "individuals or organised groups that violate public order, the safety of persons, property, and public administration, as well as hear complaints against possible excesses in police crackdowns".

A show of arms

On May 30, Rio de Janeiro's military police held a show-and-tell for journalists in the parking lot of an upscale oceanside restaurant. 

Every division of the police department, including a specially created mega-event police division, suited up for the photo-op.

There were police with dogs, on four-wheelers, in scuba gear, on bikes, horses, in helicopters, and in full riot gear, parading in front of the cameras, including a few in high-tech masks seemingly inspired by Star Wars' Darth Vader. 

Violent protests, this is our worry. Protests are legitimate and we protect them, but what can't happen is protesters using violence.

- Colonel Reynaldo Lemos

Their message was clear: We are ready for anything - but especially for protests.

"Violent protests, this is our worry. Protests are legitimate and we protect them, but what can't happen is protesters using violence against people, police and private and public patrimony," said Reynaldo Lemos, a colonel in Rio de Janeiro's police force.

The government has planned to deploy 170,000 members of the security forces in 12 host cities, and has doubled the number of police around stadiums compared to the 2013 Confederation Cup.

The World Cup security budget is nearly $900m. Expenses include a large contract with Rio-based Condor Non-Lethal Technologies, according to The Nation, specialising in crowd control and civil unrest, and providing "less lethal" supplies such as tear gas, rubber bullets and sound grenades.

"We never had problems until certain elements began to infiltrate the protests," Lemos said, referring to radical groups like Black Bloc, which have been blamed by officials for violence and destruction of property during protests. "The idea is that no one is hurt. If the protest is peaceful, everyone will leave safely."

But according to a recent study, 64 percent of military and civil police across the country admitted not having received proper training to deal with protests and the Black Blocs during protests in 2013. Only 10 percent said the police behaved correctly.

"Protests hadn't happened for a long time in Brazil, so they were not prepared to deal with them," Neder said. "After that we expected that proper training was in place, but it was never clear what kind of training happened or what type of material for training is being used. Then all the violence happened since then."

A police spokesman confirmed that special training is taking place among civil and military police with international partners including the FBI. "Since 2011, about two thousand [Brazilian] agents have undergone courses in riot control of civilians, managing large events, progressive use of force incidents involving chemical weapons, among others."

"There was profound reflection as of June [2013], on the level of tactics, training, equipment, the number of police with this expertise ... The military police had its plan, the transport control had its plan, the fire department had its plan, but this was not integrated," said Roberto Alzir, the undersecretary for major events, when asked about specific training for use of force. "Therefore, we elaborated a contingency plan for public protests, integrating the actions of these various organs."

Police investigations 

The Amnesty report stated that some protesters were taken to police stations and charged with violating organised crime laws, or other legislation not originally intended for use against protesters.

The Rio de Janeiro police released a statement in response to the new report, calling protests an integral part of the democratic process secured by the constitution, and assured a process of accountability.

It said the Internal Affairs Department of the Military Police had launched 16 investigations of "irregularities" committed by the force, half of which are still under way. Of those concluded, cases showing "evidence of criminality" were forwarded to the public prosecutor's office while cases involving "disciplinary offences" were punished internally, according to the translated statement.

"Police initiatives aim to secure the right of peaceful protesters and curb the violence that vandalises public and private property, as well as guaranteeing the right of free movement, for the whole population, involved in protests or not," the statement in Portuguese read.

New legislation being considered by lawmakers has included banning masks during protests, upping penalties for vandalism during protests, and requiring protesters to give advance notice of demonstrations to government authorities. An anti-terrorism bill is currently waiting to be heard in the Senate.

There are no known terrorism threats in Rio for the World Cup, according to officials, nor is there a history of domestic terrorism in Brazil.

"Thus, even if the crime of terrorism law is not approved, everything points to the fact that others will be," said Luana Xavier Pinto Coelho, the representative of the National Urban Reform Forum. Pinto Coelho added that the laws are intended to be used against protesters, and that security forces are already monitoring their actions.

"We know about the reports of colleagues whose homes were searched without any judicial authorisation, people who have their personal telephones tapped and their lives monitored," Pinto Coelho said. "We know that the government has already monitored groups and leaders and want to inhibit their action during the World Cup, hoping to prevent mass demonstrations and protests around the country."

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Al Jazeera
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