Protesters, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, clash with police during a protest outside the Planalto Palace building in Brasilia. Eraldo Peres/PA

Brazil's riots at Congress: what we know so far

Hundreds of people have been arrested in the wake of the riots.

THOUSANDS OF PROTESTERS yesterday stormed Brazil’s seat of power in scenes which have been compared to the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington two years ago. 

The protesters, supporters of right-wing former president Jair Bolosonaro, gained access to the country’s National Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace before ransacking the buildings.

It came just a week after left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva was sworn in, having narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in October’s election.

But how exactly did the riot come about, and what role – if any – did Bolsonaro play in its creation? 

Here’s what you need to know.

What happened?

Thousands of people dressed in green and yellow and draped in the Brazilian flag flooding into Brasilia’s Three Powers Square yesterday afternoon. Lula was in the southeastern city of Araraquara visiting a region hit by severe floods at the time.

Footage posted on social media showed rioters breaking doors and windows to enter the Congress building, then streaming inside en masse, trashing lawmakers’ offices and using the sloped speaker’s dais on the Senate floor as a slide as they shouted insults directed at the absent lawmakers.

Protesters damaged artworks, historic objects, furniture and decorations as they rampaged through the buildings, according to Brazilian media reports.

One video showed a crowd outside pulling a policeman from his horse and beating him to the ground.

Police, who had established a security cordon around the square, fired tear gas in a bid to disperse the rioters – initially to no avail.

bolsonaro-supporters-storm-congress-grounds Supporters of former Brazilian President Bolsonaro clash with police officers in the capital. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI), a journalists’ union, said at least five reporters were attacked, including an AFP photographer who was beaten by protesters and had his equipment stolen.

Police appeared noticeably slow to react – even after the arrival of more than 100 busses – leading many to ponder whether authorities had either simply ignored numerous warnings, underestimated the protesters’ strength, or had been somehow complicit.

Who was protesting?

Those protesting made it clear that they were supporters of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro in footage they filmed of themselves, which was posted or streamed online during the riot. 

But the incident is not an isolated one. The hardline supporters have been protesting outside army bases calling for a military intervention to stop Lula from taking power since he won the presidential election with 50.9% of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%.

Unwilling to accept the results of the vote, protesters erected camps in front of military installations in Brazil’s major cities and blocked highways in over half the country’s states.

Chants of “federal intervention” were heard at some demonstrations, while others became violent, resulting in people being injured.

A week before Lula’s inauguration, police arrested a man for allegedly placed explosives in a fuel truck near Brasilia’s airport. The man confessed that the plot was formed with other Bolsonaro supporters who had been protesting outside the army headquarters in Brasilia.

Bolsonaro’s supporters have consistently claimed that the election was fraudulent. However, in a report compiled by the country’s defence ministry found that there was no fraud or inconsistency in the electoral process.

Brazilians have used electronic voting since 1996 that security experts consider less secure than hand-marked paper ballots because they leave no auditable paper trail.

Brazil’s system is, however, closely scrutinised, and domestic authorities and international observers have never found evidence of it being exploited to commit fraud.

Did Bolsonaro play a role in the riot?

In a tweet yesterday, Bolsonaro said peaceful protest is part of democracy, but vandalism and invasion of public buildings are “exceptions to the rule”.

He made no specific mention of the protesters’ actions in Brasilia, and rejected a claim from Lula that he incited the riots. 

Bolsonaro had been stoking belief among his hardcore supporters that the country’s electronic voting system was prone to fraud, though he has never presented any evidence to support this claim.

He has repeatedly said that election officials count votes in secret, suggesting they could manipulate results, and that he suspects hackers failed to steal the presidential election from him in 2018. Studies of the 2018 election found no evidence of voter fraud.

His son Eduardo Bolsonaro has also held several meetings with former US president Donald Trump, Trump’s longtime ally Steve Bannon and his senior campaign adviser, Jason Miller.

Results from Brazil’s election – the closest in more than three decades – were quickly recognised by politicians across the spectrum, including some Bolsonaro allies, as well as dozens of governments around the world.

Since losing the election, Bolsonaro has neither conceded defeat nor claimed fraud, though he and his party submitted a request to nullify millions of votes that was swiftly dismissed.

The former president left the country two days before Lula’s inauguration and is thought to be in Florida.

According to Reuters, he is currently under investigation in Brazil for at least four criminal probes, including allegations he leaned on the federal police to protect his sons, spread known electoral falsehoods, and promoted the spread of misinformation from a troll farm in his presidential office. 

What happens next?

Over 300 protesters have been arrested so far, with authorities promising to crack down on those who attended the riots. 

Lula has condemned the riots as a “fascist” attack and has signed a decree declaring a federal intervention in Brasilia, giving his government special powers over the local police force to restore law and order in the capital.

Justice minister Flavio Dino said the acts amounted to terrorism and coup-mongering and that police have begun tracking those who paid for the buses that transported protesters to the capital.

Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha has sacked the capital’s public security chief, Anderson Torres, who previously served as Bolsonaro’s justice minister.

Rocha was in turn ordered to relinquish his post for 90 days by Federal Supreme Court magistrate Alexandre de Moraes.

The attorney general’s office said it had asked the Supreme Court to issue arrest warrants for Torres “and all other public officials responsible for acts and omissions” leading to the unrest.

It also asked the high court to authorize the use of “all public security forces” to take back federal buildings and disperse anti-government protests nationwide.

Contains reporting from the Press Association and © AFP 2023

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