Police in Brazil are questioning about 1,000 supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro who were detained following the invasion of government buildings during the weekend, as calls for justice and accountability grow across the South American nation.
Most of the former far-right leader’s backers were detained when law enforcement dismantled a protest camp in the capital, Brasilia, which many demonstrators set off from on Sunday before breaking into Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace.
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Approximately 1,000 detainees from the camp outside Brazil’s federal army headquarters were held for questioning on Tuesday at a police gymnasium where they slept on the ground, some wrapped in Brazilian flags.
The administration of Brazil’s new left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was officially sworn in on January 1, has pledged to investigate who was behind the violence and hold those responsible to account.
Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who is running investigations of the “anti-democratic” protests, vowed in a speech on Tuesday to combat the “terrorists” at work in Brasilia.
“Democracy will prevail and Brazilian institutions will not bend,” said Moraes at the swearing-in of a new head of the federal police.
Rioters wearing the green and yellow of the national flag – colours that have come to symbolise support for Bolsonaro – broke windows, toppled furniture and hurled computers and printers to the ground as they ransacked the government buildings on Sunday.
They punched holes in a massive Emiliano Di Cavalcanti painting at the presidential palace and destroyed other works of art; overturned the U-shaped table where Supreme Court justices convene; ripped a door off one justice’s office, and vandalised a statue outside the court.
The riot came just weeks after Lula, who previously served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010, narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in a hard-fought, presidential election runoff on October 30.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has expressed admiration for the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, for months had falsely claimed the country’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to fraud.
Observers and rights groups cautioned that Bolsonaro’s unfounded allegations aimed to set the stage for him to dispute the election results, similar to the effort carried out in the United States by former President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro has emulated.
Sunday’s riot in Brasilia also drew parallels to the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol, which saw a mob of Trump supporters storm the legislature in an effort to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has rejected accusations that he encouraged the unrest in Brazil’s capital. In a series of tweets on Sunday, he said peaceful protest is part of democracy, but vandalism and invasion of public buildings are “exceptions to the rule”.
Bolsonaro’s son, Brazilian Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, also said on Tuesday that people should not try to link his father to what happened.
“Do not try to create a narrative of lies as if Bolsonaro had any connection with these irresponsible acts,” Flavio said during a Senate session. “Since the election results he’s been silent, licking his wounds, virtually incommunicado.”
Bolsonaro, who never formally conceded defeat to Lula, left Brazil two days before his left-wing rival’s January 1 inauguration. He is currently in the US state of Florida, where on Monday he was admitted to hospital with abdominal pain linked to a 2018 stabbing for which he has repeatedly sought medical attention.
Brazilian police were noticeably slow to react to the riot in Brasilia — even after the arrival of more than 100 buses — leading many to question whether authorities had either simply ignored numerous warnings, underestimated the protesters’ strength or been somehow complicit.
Prosecutors in the capital said local security forces were negligent at the very least.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s Senate on Tuesday approved a decree authorising Lula’s government to take control of security in the federal district, after it was signed by the president and passed in the lower house of Congress.
The move came after thousands of Brazilians took to the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, among other cities, to demand that those involved in the riot be brought to justice.
“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, told The Associated Press on Monday during a rally on Sao Paulo’s main boulevard.
“They don’t represent Brazil. We represent Brazil,” Amin said.
Declining to mete out punishment “can avoid tensions at the moment, but perpetuates instability”, Luis Felipe Miguel, a political science professor 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,” he wrote.
Reporting from Brasilia on Tuesday, Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew said Lula so far has been able to present a united front, releasing a joint statement this week with the heads of the Supreme Court and both chambers of Congress in defence of Brazilian democracy.
Governors from across Brazil also pledged not to support anything like what occurred in Brasilia, she reported, in another example of how the deeply divided nation has come together “to defend the government, to defend its institutions”.
“It did strengthen Lula politically, also morally,” said Yanakiew, adding that though it remains to be seen how the president will use this momentum, “for the moment, he has the support of the governors, of the Supreme Court, of Congress.”