Arrests after Bolsonaro supporters attack key offices in Brazil

Police arrest 300 people over ‘anti-democratic’ riots by Bolsonaro’s supporters as questions mount about security lapses in Brasilia.

Supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva outside Brazil’s National Congress in Brasilia, January 8, 2023 [Adriano Machado/ Reuters]

Police in Brazil have arrested hundreds of people and wrested back control of the country’s Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Court from rioting supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro.

In a tweet on Sunday, the police said at least 300 people had been detained in the capital, Brasilia, after the rampage by thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters who refuse to accept his election defeat – a grim echo of the invasion of the United States Capitol two years ago by die-hard supporters of former President Donald Trump.

“Investigations will continue until the last member is identified,” the police promised.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries from Sunday’s assault, but the invaders left a trail of destruction, throwing furniture through the smashed windows of the presidential palace, flooding parts of Congress with a sprinkler system and ransacking ceremonial rooms in the Supreme Court.

The uprising, which lasted a little over three hours, underlined the severe polarisation that still grips the country days after the inauguration of leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in the October election.

In a news conference from Sao Paulo state, Lula accused Bolsonaro of encouraging the rioting by those he termed “fascist fanatics,” and read a freshly signed decree for the federal government to take control of security in Brasilia.

“There is no precedent for what they did,” Lula said.

“All these people who did this will be found and they will be punished.”

The president then flew back to Brasilia to tour the ransacked buildings and oversee the response, Brazil’s TV Globo reported.

The far-right Bolsonaro, who has yet to concede defeat and who flew to the US state of Florida days before the end of his term, was silent for nearly six hours about the chaos in Brasilia. Following Lula’s accusations, he posted a tweet denouncing “pillaging and invasions of public buildings” and said he rejected the president’s allegations.

The invasions were also condemned by leaders around the world.

US President Joe Biden called the events an “assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power,” adding that Brazil’s democratic institutions had Washington’s full support.

European Council President Charles Michel tweeted his “absolute condemnation”, and French President Emmanuel Macron called for respect of Brazil’s institutions and sent Lula “France’s unwavering support”.

A raft of Latin American leaders spoke out, with Chilean President Gabriel Boric denouncing a “cowardly and vile attack on democracy” and Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador calling it a “reprehensible coup attempt”.

Several Democratic lawmakers in the US meanwhile said Washington could no longer grant Bolsonaro “refuge” in the country.

“We must stand in solidarity with [Lula’s] democratically elected government,” tweeted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “The US must cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro in Florida.”

Security lapses

Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, said there were questions about how public security forces in Brasilia were so unprepared and easily overwhelmed by the rioters.

“Bolsonaro’s supporters have been organising these attacks on their Telegram channels, and during the past week buses carrying hundreds of people have been arriving in Brasilia. So it came as a surprise that the security forces in Brasilia were so slow to act, and this has cast some doubts about their loyalties because the military police and the armed forces, in general, have been staunch supporters of Bolsonaro,” she said.

At his news conference, Lula said there was “incompetence or bad faith″ on the part of the Brazilian police and promised those officers would be punished and expelled from the corps.

Yanakiev noted that earlier videos on social media had shown a limited presence of the capital’s military police, with one of them showing officers standing by as people flooded into Congress, with one using his phone to record images.

“Lula’s main goal now is to stop any attempted coups and further situations like this,” she said.

“We must remember that although there were only a few people who entered these three buildings and destroyed windows and furniture, Bolsonaro has many supporters throughout Brazil, who believe that the elections have been rigged, who believe the Supreme Court is biased, who believe Congress will wheel and deal with the government and who believe they are right in stopping Lula from governing.”

Analysts in Brazil meanwhile called for an investigation into Bolsonaro’s role in the violence.

“For sure this was a coup attempt on the part of Bolsonaro’s most radical supporters,” said Vinicius Vieira, an associate professor of economics and international relations at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation.

“And that’s something that Bolsonaro while he was in power stimulated, particularly against the Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court was always trying to enforce constitutional rules against Bolsonaro’s far-right positions,” he told Al Jazeera.

“So that was totally articulated if not by Bolsonaro himself, it’s certainly a result, a consequence of his misbehaviour as president that did not really follow the constitutional rules,” he said.

In Brasilia, Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a longtime Bolsonaro ally facing tough questions over Sunday’s security lapses, said he had fired his chief of police, Anderson Torres.

The website UOL said Torres, who was previously Bolsonaro’s justice minister, was currently in Orlando, Florida, where the former president is now staying. But Torres told the website he had not had a meeting with Bolsonaro.

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 authorise the use of “all public security forces” to take back federal buildings and disperse anti-government protests nationwide.

Chief Justice Rosa Weber meanwhile pledged that the “terrorists who participated in these acts will be duly tried and exemplarily punished”.

The heads of both houses of Congress also condemned the attacks publicly with House Speaker Arthur Lira saying the Brazilian parliament “will never give room for turmoil, destruction and vandalism”.

Senate Speaker Rodrigo Pacheco also said he “vehemently repudiates these anti-democratic acts, which must urgently face the rigour of the law”.

A journalists’ union said at least five reporters were attacked, including an AFP news agency photographer who was beaten by protesters and had his equipment stolen.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies