Demonstration against Amazonian soya in Brazil. 21 May, 2006.  © Greenpeace / Ricardo Beliel

In the midst of a severe political crisis and seriously threatened by the possibility of an impeachment, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff will soon have to make a decision that puts her once again on a crash course with civil society: whether or not to sanction a controversial anti-terrorism law that would allow any protester to be framed as a terrorist. 

Recently approved by Brazil’s Congress, this new piece of legislation allows anyone who is accused of committing or planning to commit crimes as minor as damage to public and private goods to be charged with terrorism. If the judiciary decides the accused person is innocent, a process that could take months or years, the terrorist label will already be there – and it is a hard label to remove. Importantly, all criminal actions described in the law are already covered by other laws, which raises questions about the real motivations of those standing by it.

Brazil’s civil society is right to fear the possible impacts of a law like this, considering the country’s recent track record regarding freedom of expression and association. As recently exposed by an Amnesty International report, arbitrary detentions and attempts to criminalize peaceful protests have become common in Brazil. The most symbolic case is perhaps that of Rafael Braga Vieira, arrested during nationwide protests that took place in 2013 for carrying two bottles of cleaning material. He was condemned to five years of prison – a case that outraged human rights defenders across the country.

The approval of this anti-terrorism law would be a serious blow to Brazil’s democracy. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where similar laws are already in effect, they are used to arbitrarily silence protesters. Thousands of Brazilian citizens, among them renowned activists, academics and relatives of victims of Brazil’s former military dictatorship, have already sent letters to President Dilma Rousseff denouncing the law. They are joined by a large group of NGOs (including Greenpeace Brazil), social movements and a group of UN Special Rapporteurs.

Brazil’s former Finance Minister Joaquim Levy and other members of the government claim this law is needed for Brazil to conform to the rules set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization founded by the G7 to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. They argue that rejecting the law puts future foreign investments in Brazil at risk.

But legal experts have already made it clear that the FATF demands laws that specifically stop terrorist financing, which Brazil already has – not laws that address terrorism in general terms. This law serves little purpose beyond shrinking Brazil’s already threatened democratic space.

President Dilma Rousseff, who has been called a terrorist herself for fighting Brazil’s former military regime, still has the chance to veto the law. Her final word on this issue is expected by 16 March.

In a time of deep unrest, the least she can do is give Brazil’s democracy some breathing space.

Pedro Telles is a civil rights activist and a campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil