'No amnesty': Brazilian protests demand jail for rioters

Demonstrators march holding a banner that reads in Portuguese 'We are Democracy' during a protest calling for protection of the nation's democracy in Sao Paulo. Credit: AP

Protesters in Brazil have demanded retribution against those who stormed the nation's Congress on Sunday.

On Monday, chants of "no amnesty" reverberated off the walls of a jam-packed hall at the University of Sao Paulo’s law college.

Hours later, it was the rallying cry for thousands of Brazilians who streamed into the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

The words are a call for retribution against supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro who stormed Brazil’s capital on Sunday, and those who enabled the rampage.

“These people need to be punished, the people who ordered it need to be punished, those who gave money for it need to be punished,” Bety Amin, a 61-year-old therapist, said on Sao Paulo’s main boulevard. The word “DEMOCRACY” stretched across the back of her shirt. “They don’t represent Brazil. We represent Brazil”.

Protesters’ push for accountability evokes memories of an amnesty law that for decades has protected military members accused of abuse and murder during the country’s 1964-85 dictatorship. A 2014 truth commission report sparked debate over how Brazil has grappled with the regime’s legacy.

Declining to mete out punishment “can avoid tensions at the moment, but perpetuates instability,” Luis Felipe Miguel, a professor of political science at the University of Brasilia, wrote in a column entitled “No Amnesty” published on Monday evening.

“That is the lesson we should have learned from the end of the military dictatorship, when Brazil opted not to punish the regime’s killers and torturers.”

Bolsonaro himself has decamped to Orlando, Florida. On Monday, he checked into a hospital there, complaining of abdominal pains.

Brazilian police on Monday had already rounded up roughly 1,500 rioters, with some caught in the act of trashing Brazil’s Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. The majority were detained the following morning at an encampment in Brasilia.

Bolsonaro supporters storm Congress. Credit: AP

Many were held in a gymnasium throughout the day, and video shared on pro-Bolsonaro social media channels showed some complaining about poor treatment in the crowded space.

The Federal Police’s press office said the force plans to indict at least 1,000 people, and has begun transferring them to the nearby Papuda prison.

The administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva says that is only the start.

Justice minister Flávio Dino vowed to prosecute those who acted behind the scenes to summon supporters on social media and finance their transport for crimes including organised crime, staging a coup, and violent abolition of the democratic rule of law. He also said authorities would investigate allegations that local security personnel allowed the destruction to proceed unabated.

“We cannot and will not compromise in fulfilling our legal duties,” Mr Dino said. “This fulfilment is essential so such events do not repeat themselves.”

Lula signed a decree ordering the federal government to assume control of security in the capital on Sunday. It was approved by Congress’ Lower House on Monday night, and now proceeds to the Senate.

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The riot in Brasilia was a reminder of the threat to democracy posed by far-right elements that refuse to accept Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat. Since his October 30 loss, they have camped outside military barracks, pleading for intervention to allow Bolsonaro to remain in power and oust Lula. When no coup materialised, they rose up themselves.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has waxed nostalgic for the dictatorship era, praised a notorious torturer as a hero and said the regime should have gone further in executing communists. His government also commemorated the anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 coup.

Political analysts had repeatedly warned that Bolsonaro was laying the groundwork for an insurrection in the mould of that which unfolded in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

For months, he stoked belief among hardcore supporters that the nation’s electronic voting system was prone to fraud — though he never presented any evidence and independent experts disagreed.

Results from the election, the closest since Brazil’s return to democracy, were quickly recognized by politicians across the spectrum, including some Bolsonaro allies, as well as dozens of other governments.

The outgoing president surprised nearly everyone by promptly fading from view, neither conceding defeat nor emphatically crying fraud. He and his party submitted a request to nullify millions of votes, which was swiftly dismissed by the electoral authority.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, Lula said that the so-called “fascist fanatics” and their financial backers must be held responsible. He also accused Bolsonaro of encouraging the uprising.

Bolsonaro denied the president’s accusation on Sunday. Writing on Twitter, he said peaceful protest is part of democracy, but vandalism and invasion of public buildings cross the line.