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Supporters of former Brazilian President Bolsonaro clash with law enforcement officers in the capital, who form a chain behind barriers and fire tear gas shells at protesters. DPA/PA Images

Brazilian authorities arrest 1,500 protesters after major pro-Bolsonaro riots

Hundreds of soldiers and police have mobilised to dismantle an improvised camp outside the army’s headquarters in Brasilia.

LAST UPDATE | 9 Jan 2023

BRAZILIAN AUTHORITIES HAVE vowed to protect democracy after thousands of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed congress, the supreme court and presidential palace in the capital Brasilia, with more than a thousand protesters arrested.

Hundreds of soldiers and police have mobilised to dismantle an improvised camp outside the army’s headquarters in Brasilia, where some 3,000 supporters of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro had set up tents.

They were used as a base for the sea of protesters who ran riot inside the presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court for around four hours yesterday. 

The protesters were seeking military intervention to either restore the far-right Bolsonaro to power or oust the newly inaugurated leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, unleashing chaos and destruction that bore striking similarities to the insurrection at the US capitol on 6 January last year.

Rioters donning the green and yellow of the national flag on Sunday broke windows, toppled furniture, hurled computers and printers to the ground at the nation’s highest seats of power in the capital.

They punctured a massive Emiliano Di Cavalcanti painting in five places, overturned the U-shaped table at which supreme court justices convene, ripped a door off one justice’s office and vandalised a statue outside the court.

The buildings’ interiors were left in states of ruin.

Authorities made a point to show that they were moving to prevent further attacks on Brazil’s democratic rule of law.

Around 1,500 people were arrested at the pro-Bolsonaro protest camp, officials said.

Many Brasilia residents were still in shock as they returned to their normal workday routines.

“People have the right to express their opinions, but not destroy our national heritage,” 43-year-old resident Ionar Bispo told AFP.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has been hospitalised with abdominal pain, his wife said today, a day after his supporters invaded the seat of power.

Media reports said Bolsonaro had been admitted to AdventHealth Celebration acute care hospital outside Orlando, Florida, where the former president traveled two days before the end of his term on December 31.

Bolsonaro “is under observation in the hospital, due to abdominal discomfort stemming from the stabbing attack he suffered in 2018″ during his winning presidential campaign, Michelle Bolsonaro wrote on Instagram.

In a news conference late yesterday, Brazil’s minister of institutional relations said the buildings would be inspected for evidence including fingerprints while images would be scanned to hold people to account, before claiming the rioters apparently intended to spark similar actions nationwide.

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.

“They will not succeed in destroying Brazilian democracy. We need to say that fully, with all firmness and conviction,” Dino said.

brazil-elections-protest A protester, supporter of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, empties a fire extinguisher after protesters stormed Planalto Palace in Brasilia. Eraldo Peres / PA Eraldo Peres / PA / PA

“We will not accept the path of criminality to carry out political fights in Brazil. A criminal is treated like a criminal.”

So far, 300 people have been arrested, the federal district’s civil police said on Twitter.

But police were 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.

Public prosecutors in the capital said local security forces had at very least been negligent while a supreme court justice temporarily suspended the regional governor.

Another justice blamed authorities for not swiftly cracking down on Brazil’s budding neofascism, adding that they will be held criminally responsible.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is advising Irish people to exercise a “high degree of caution” before travelling to Brazil.

“Due to the ongoing security situation in the city of Brasilia, Irish citizens are advised to avoid the central areas of Brasilia until further notice,” a statement on the Department’s website reads.

Should any Irish citizen require assistance, they should contact the Embassy using the out of hours emergency service by calling +55 61 3248 8800.

Bolsonaro defeat

In the months that followed Bolsonaro’s 30 October electoral defeat, Brazil was on edge – leery of any avenue he might pursue to cling to power.

He had been stoking belief among his hardcore supporters that the electronic voting system was prone to fraud — though he never presented any evidence.

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

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

brazil-elections-protest Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva walks in Planalto Palace after it was stormed by supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia. Eraldo Peres / PA Eraldo Peres / PA / PA

Bolsonaro surprised nearly everyone by promptly fading from view. He neither conceded defeat nor emphatically claimed fraud, though he and his party submitted a request to nullify millions of votes that was swiftly dismissed.

However, his supporters have refused to accept the results. They blocked roads and have remained camped outside military buildings in the months since the election, calling on the armed forces to intervene.

Dino, the justice minister, referred to the encampments as incubators of terrorism. Protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, but isolated isolated threats – including a bomb found on a fuel truck headed to Brasilia’s airport – had prompted security concerns.

Two days before Lula’s 1 January inauguration, Bolsonaro flew to the US and took up temporary residence in Orlando. Many Brazilians expressed relief that, while he declined to participate in the transition of power, his absence allowed it to occur without incident.

Lula, the 77-year-old veteran leftist who previously led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, joined the leaders of both houses of Congress and the chief justice of the Supreme Court in condemning what many called the South American country’s version of the Capitol riots in Washington two years ago.

“The three powers of the republic, the defenders of democracy and the constitution, reject the terrorist acts and criminal, coup-mongering vandalism that occurred,” they said in a joint statement.

Following the havoc, Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, said: “Bolsonarism mimics the same strategies as Trumpism. Our January 8 – an unprecedented manifestation in Brazilian politics – is clearly copied from January 6 in the capitol.

“Today’s sad episodes represent yet another attempt to destabilize democracy and demonstrate that the authoritarian, populist radicalism of Brazil’s extreme right remains active under the command of former President Bolsonaro, the ‘Trump of Latin America’.”

‘Assault on democracy’

US President Joe Biden tweeted that the riots were an “assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil” and that he looked forward to continue working with Lula.

In a statement, President Michael D Higgins said: “The democratic election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the choice of the Brazilian people.

“President Lula da Silva faces enormous challenges to which all those who believe in the democratic process should lend their support,” the president said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen strongly condemned “the assault on democracy in Brasil” in a tweet.

“This is a major concern to all of us, the defenders of democracy,” she said. “My full support to President @LulaOficial, who was elected freely and fairly.”

China said it “firmly opposes the violent attack” on government buildings in the Brazilian capital.

“China closely follows and firmly opposes the violent attack on the federal authority in Brazil on January 8,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Beijing, he said, “supports the measures taken by the Brazilian government to calm the situation, restore social order and safeguard national stability.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also condemned riots, tweeting that “the violent attacks on democratic institutions are an assault on democracy which is intolerable”.

“We stand closely by President @LulaOficial and Brazilians,” the tweet read.

French President Emmanuel Macron also tweeted his “unwavering” support, saying that “the will of the Brazilian people and the democratic institutions must be respected!”

In his yearly New Year’s address to ambassadors, Pope Francis condemned a “weakening of democracy” in the Americas, citing the storming of government buildings in Brazil.

“In many areas, a sign of the weakening of democracy is heightened political and social polarisation, which does not help to resolve the urgent problems of citizens,” said Francis during his speech at the Vatican.

The Argentine pontiff cited “various countries of the Americas where political crises are laden with tensions and forms of violence that exacerbate social conflicts”.

“I am thinking of these last few hours in Brazil,” he said, in a line that was not included in the pre-released text.

In a news conference from Sao Paulo state, Lula read a freshly signed decree for the federal government to assume control of security in the federal district. He said that the so-called “fascist fanatics”, as well as those who financed their activities, must be punished, and also accused Bolsonaro of encouraging their uprising.

Bolsonaro repudiated the president’s accusation.

Writing on Twitter, he 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.

As the violence unfolded, Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha fired the capital’s public security chief, Anderson Torres, who previously served as Bolsonaro’s justice minister.

Rocha was in turn suspended from his post for 90 days by Supreme Court Justice 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.

Additional reporting by AFP

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