One thousand days of the Bolsonaro government: ten occasions civil society prevented setbacks

In the week when the Bolsonaro administration completes a thousand days, we look back at the failed attempts by the government to attack democracy and remove guaranteed rights

To guarantee the protection of rights and democracy, civil society takes strong action against the unconstitutional measures of Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Ebc To guarantee the protection of rights and democracy, civil society takes strong action against the unconstitutional measures of Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Ebc

The government of Jair Bolsonaro completes one thousand days this week and one of its main hallmarks has been the systematic attack on human rights and democracy. In different ways – provisional measures, decrees, legislative bills, ministerial orders and bidding processes – the Bolsonaro administration has, since 2019, tried to control human rights defenders and opponents, indiscriminately increase access to firearms, neglect health care for indigenous peoples and quilombola communities, and taken other actions that attack constitutional principles.

These attempted setbacks required strong action from civil society in Congress, in the Judiciary and in international bodies. 

Conectas looks back on 10 cases in which society beat Bolsonaro: 


1 – Qualified immunity in the “anti-crime” package

In February 2019, the former federal judge Sérgio Moro, who was Minister of Justice at the time, submitted to Congress the so-called “anti-crime” package, a set of measures that doubled down on the punitive approach and on swelling the prison system, by proposing harsher sentences and a reduction of rights such as sentence progression. Among the most problematic aspects of the package was the expansion of qualified immunity for police officers, exempting them from liability for crimes committed in the line of duty – which, in practice, gives the police carte blanche to kill in a country that already has one of the highest rates of police lethality against black youth, most of whom live in the poor urban outskirts.

Staged by more than 70 organizations, including Conectas, the campaign “Anti-Crime Package, a Fake Solution” drew the attention of the National Congress to the problems of the bill, including the matter of qualified immunity. As a result of this pressure, the qualified immunity and other aspects considered unconstitutional were removed from the text approved by Congress. Take a look back at the case at this link.   

2 – Provisional Measure to Control NGOs

Right at the start of the Bolsonaro government, Provisional Measure 870/2019, which reorganized the structure of the federal public administration, included an article that gave the Secretary of Government the authority to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and observe the activities and actions of international bodies and non-governmental organizations in the country”. In practice, the Measure created ways for the Presidency to monitor civil society organizations, considered enemies of Bolsonaro during his election campaign and, as such, it would restrict the work of NGOs in the field of human and socio-environmental rights. The Measure also attempted to change the demarcation process of indigenous lands, transferring it from FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) at the Ministry of Justice, to INCRA (National Land Reform Agency) at the Ministry of Agriculture. 

In response, hundreds of non-governmental organizations pressured the National Congress and government officials, by pointing out that any attempt to control the work of civil society would be unconstitutional. In a statement, the Pact for Democracy noted that Brazil already has the Regulatory Framework for Civil Society Organizations, which regulates the activities of the third sector. In Congress, members of civil society closely monitored the work of a joint committee that was created to analyze the Measure. After a great deal of discussion and pressure, there was an important victory: members of Congress removed from the Secretary of Government the power to monitor the activities of non-governmental organizations. The demarcation of indigenous lands also remained in the hands of FUNAI. Revisit the case at this link.

3 – Undermining the combat of torture

In a decree published in August 2019, Bolsonaro dismissed eleven experts from the MNPCT (National Mechanism to Combat and Prevent Torture). The MNPCT is a body of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights that is responsible for investigating torture and mistreatment in prisons, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. 

In addition to the dismissal of the experts, the decree also determined that the work performed by the body would be considered a “relevant public service, unpaid”. In practice, the government undermined the country’s main prison inspection mechanism. 

The decree provoked reactions from Brazilian civil society and international bodies. Upon learning about the matter, the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) expressed its concern. A statement signed by more than 200 organizations, including Conectas, the Brazilian Bar Association and IDDD (Defense of the Right to a Defense Institute), condemned the dissolution of the mechanism’s independence.

As a result, the Federal Public Defender’s Office filed a lawsuit calling for the suspension of the presidential decree. The request was partially accepted by the Federal Court of Rio de Janeiro, which issued an injunction to reinstate the dismissed experts.  Click here to look back at the case.

4 – Summary deportations

In July 2019, with the stroke of a pen, the former Minister of Justice Sérgio Moro permitted the summary deportation of migrants based on the mere suspicion that a person could be a danger to national security for alleged involvement in terrorism, organized crime or drug trafficking, among other things.

In violation of international commitments assumed by Brazil and the country’s own Migration Law, which guarantees the right to a defense, Ministerial Decree 666/19 gave the Federal Police the power to take arbitrary decisions and it set a time limit of just 48 hours for a notified person to submit their defense or to voluntarily leave the country. 

More than 50 civil society organizations that work with migration issues spoke out against the decree. In a statement, they said that “there is no provision in the Brazilian legal system, in particular the Migration Law, for the compulsory removal of an immigrant who is already inside the country in the manner presented in the Decree.”

After the Office of the Prosecutor-General filed a case in the Supreme Court at the request of civil society in September 2019 – ADPF Case (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) No. 619, the government revoked the measure, issuing a new decree that was less severe than the original one. The pressure also meant that, in practice, the summary deportation measures were not carried out by the Federal Police. See more at this link.

5 – Gun decrees

Since assuming the Presidency of the Republic in January 2019, Bolsonaro has issued a series of decrees to change aspects of the Disarmament Act – a law passed in 2003 that has successfully slowed the growth in the number of homicides caused by firearms in the country.

These measures by the federal government have eased the controls, requirements and limits on the possession and ownership of guns and ammunition, with a view to generating uncertainties and regulatory chaos. In May 2019, ADPF Case (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) No. 581 challenged the constitutionality of one of these decrees, no. 9,785/2019, in the Supreme Court. 

Accepted as an amicus curiae in the case, Conectas highlighted the relationship between the rise in the number of firearms and the increase in murders, femicides, suicides and fatal accidents involving children. In this regard, the organization pointed out that the decrees infringe on the fundamental guarantees that inspired the Disarmament Act – the right to life and to public security and the dignity of the human person – and leave black youth particularly exposed to the increased in violence.

In April 2021, the rapporteur of the case, Justice Rosa Weber, issued an injunction suspending several provisions of four decrees signed by President Jair Bolsonaro. The case was taken to the full session of the Court, together with a number of other cases challenging other decrees, and is currently pending judgment following an adjournment requested by Justice Kássio Nunes Marques. In the meantime, the suspension ordered by Rosa Weber remains in effect. Keep track of the case at this link.

6 – Protection of indigenous peoples in the pandemic

Pressured by illegal miners and with no quick access to medical care, indigenous communities were left to fend for themselves by the federal government during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In July 2020, given the inability of the government to uphold its constitutional responsibility to protect the physical and cultural survival of indigenous peoples, APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) and six political parties filed ADPF Case (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) No. 709 in the Supreme Court denouncing the inaction and the failures of the federal government and demanding the preparation of an emergency plan to control the pandemic on indigenous lands. The request for an injunction was partially accepted by the rapporteur of the case, Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, who ordered the federal government to present a series of concrete measures to combat the situation. 

According to Conectas and ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute), which appeared as amicus curiae in the case, the result was positive, but overlooked a key element for the protection of indigenous peoples: the removal of intruders, who are the main transmitters of the virus and also responsible for many of the conflicts and violence against indigenous communities, particularly the Yanomami and Munduruku groups. 

According to a study conducted by ISA that exposes the real risks of contamination associated with intrusions, seven indigenous lands that together accounted for 85% of all the deforestation registered in Brazil in 2019 are the most vulnerable at this time:  Yanomami (Roraima/Amazonas), Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau (Rondônia), Trincheira Bacajá, Kayapó and Munduruku (Pará), and Araribóia (Maranhão). Read about more elements of the case at this link.

7 – Changes to the Freedom of Information Law

The mechanisms for accessing public information were also targeted by the Bolsonaro government. In March 2020, in Provisional Measure 928, which contained measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the government included an article that, in practice, suspended the processing of freedom of information requests and, as such, interfered in the proper functioning of the Freedom of Information Law, which has been in effect since 2012. 

Conectas and dozens of other organizations said the Measure is disproportionate and violates the constitutional right of access to information of public interest. The organizations also said the measure made transparency and social control a secondary issue, precisely when the population was facing disinformation in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. 

In April 2020, political parties and the Brazilian Bar Association asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Measure. The court accepted the petition and the justices unanimously ruled that the measure violating the Freedom of Information Law was unconstitutional.  Congress, meanwhile, did not vote on the Measure within the deadline of 120 days, as legislation requires, and as such it lost its validity. Take a look back at the mobilization by civil society against the changes to the Freedom of Information Law.

8 – Repeal of the National Security Law

Enacted by the military dictatorship in 1983, the National Security Law was repealed by the National Congress in August 2021. In its place, lawmakers added to the Criminal Code crimes against the Democratic State.

The Bill on the Defense of the Democratic State passed through Congress this year after criticisms, by experts and members of civil society, of the indiscriminate use of the authoritarian law to persecute critics of the federal government. According to a survey by LAUT – Center for the Analysis of Freedom and Authoritarianism, in the first two years of the Bolsonaro government, there was a 285% increase in the number of investigations opened based on the National Security Law compared to the same period under the government of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer.

In early September 2021, President Jair Bolsonaro signed the new Law on the Defense of the Democratic State, which passed through Congress with the support of a broad range of parties across the political spectrum that understood the need to replace the National Security Law. The changes to the text made by the Presidency, however, attempt to shield law enforcement officers who repress peaceful demonstrations. It is now up to Congress to decide whether or not to accept the presidential vetoes. Read more about the repeal of the National Security Law at this link.

9 – Provisional Measure on Fake News

On the day before the anti-democratic demonstrations staged by supporters of the Jair Bolsonaro government on this year’s Independence Day, September 7, the Presidency issued a Provisional Measure (No. 1068/21) that restricted the ability of social media to moderate content and remove profiles that violated their terms of service and that, in practice, facilitated the spread of false and hateful content on the internet. 

Alleging that the Measure guaranteed freedom of expression, the government intended to change the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet and the Copyright Law, legislation that was broadly discussed between Congress and civil society. 

In response, six political parties filed a case in the Supreme Court calling for the immediate suspension of the Measure. At the same time, non-governmental organizations launched a strong campaign asking the president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, to return the provisional measure to the government, which would result in its annulment. Both strategies were victorious. In the Senate, Pacheco accepted the request from the social organizations that work in defense of digital rights, and in the Supreme Court, Justice Rosa Weber suspended the Measure in the case filed by the political parties. Read more about the problems of the Provisional Measure on Fake News at this link.

10 – Digital surveillance 

An article published on the UOL web portal exposed that the federal government was interested in buying the spyware Pegasus, used in different countries around the world by authoritarian governments to monitor journalists, human rights defenders and political opponents. For this purchase, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security created a bidding process without the participation of GSI (Institutional Security Cabinet) and ABIN (Brazilian Intelligence Agency), two public bodies responsible for this topic.   

Civil society organizations launched a campaign for the Federal Courts to halt the procurement of illegal spying software. Conectas, the Igarapé Institute, the Sou da Paz Institute, the Rede Liberdade network and Transparency International Brazil filed a complaint to the Federal Audit Court in May this year pointing out irregularities in the bidding process and requesting its suspension. 

“This is an illegal procurement, by inadequate means, of a system that is potentially harmful to the community, which will allow the indiscriminate and unwarranted collection of information, and which could even serve shady political interests,” warned the organizations. 

Following the repercussions of the case, NSO Group, the Israeli company that makes Pegasus, dropped out of the bidding process and, since the auction was not suspended, another company – Harpia Tecnologia Eireli – won. In another case, four civil society organizations, among them Conectas, have petitioned the Federal Audit Court to prevent the Ministry of Justice and Public Security from contracting the Harpia spyware system, alleging that the bidding process took place with no transparency. See more about the case at this link.

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