07/25/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

The Worst Kind of World Cup Legacy: Brazil's New Political Prisoners

At the height of the June 2013 protests in Brazil, corporate media momentarily succeeded in rebranding them in such a way that appealed to an openly anti-government sector of the middle class. That moment also attracted large numbers of the so-called 'new middle class', whose material standards were much improved in the last ten years, and who were therefore more likely moved by vague ideas of ending corruption and improving public services than looking to bring down the government. Sincerely or opportunistically, the left now in power denounced what was happening as a return to the destabilisation tactics that set the scene for the 1964 coup. In turn, the new generation of activists found themselves stuck between the need to communicate with all those new faces on the streets, the fear of finding an essentially progressive movement hijacked by regressive forces, and the escalation of violent police repression.

In the end, reinforcing a more militant, unmistakably left identity served to prevent co-option while keeping that new political space open. On the other hand, it arguably cost activists the opportunity to build with non-activists amenable to their message a common ground at once outside the coordinates overdetermined by the competition among existing electoral alternatives, and capable of revealing the limits of those alternatives. As the crowds at mass demonstrations dwindled from the millions back to the thousands, police brutality continued to raise the stakes, and headlines turned again to counting broken windows and arrests, a new generation just coming of age politically became a ripe target for attempts to socially isolate and criminalise them.

It is not that the virus of dissent did not continue to spread and mutate into several strikes (many of which wildcat), urban squatting, indigenous rights and favela protests. Even Rio's much-maligned Black Blocs, whose confrontational tactics gained adhesion and visibility from July 2013, were a racially and socially diverse phenomenon, attracting droves of poor youths whose hatred of the police came from a history of suffering abuses. Yet the Brazilian political system refused to budge, and the ruling Workers' Party (PT), its reputation of dialogue with social movements notwithstanding, would rather not let anything rock the boat -- especially not a whole new set of social actors neither understood nor controlled. Rather, it seemed happy to count on the escalation of confrontations and media spectacularisation to neutralise those actors, actively or passively contributing to the same process of criminalisation used against it in the past, and which could well return to bite it in the future.

Fittingly for a country where the law applies differently according to social status, until 2014 only a homeless man had been convicted in connection to the protests -- for carrying a bottle of detergent that could allegedly be used as an explosive. With the security apparatus created to stifle opposition to the World Cup, however, the situation has now taken a turn for the worse.

First there were the arrests of two activists in São Paulo, amidst strong allegations that evidence was forged, resulting in charges such as organised crime and possession of explosives. Then came the preemptive arrests on the eve of a protest against the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, the suppression of which was extreme even by the usual standards. Those arrests were immediately decried by the likes of Amnesty International as an act of intimidation with scarce legal grounds. Yet when the accusation was finally made public a week later -- leaked to the press while lawyers' access to it was unlawfully restricted -, it became clear that something altogether nastier was afoot.

The accusation did not trace cases of property damage or other clearly individualised illegal acts back to this or that person. Instead, it constructed a narrative that singled out 23 individuals as the criminal ringleaders behind multitudinous, mostly ad hoc movements with no formal structures, 'whose members', in the words of the very document presented to the courts, 'might not even know each other'. Finding immediate sensationalist echo among the media, it hinted at vague, hearsay links between those people (including a university lecturer, a journalist and schoolteachers) and numberless actions carried out or supposedly intended by anonymous unconnected individuals. Among these is the manslaughter of a cameraman, hit by fireworks in a demonstration in February, for which two people had already been arrested and charged. Conducts held to indicate criminal association include such things as donating money and arranging for food to be delivered to activists.

Despite the outlandish tone of allegations, the concerns raised by the Rio de Janeiro Bar Association and NGOs regarding the legality of the whole process, and more than a whiff of suspicion that the accusation -- based on a single informant's testimony -- simply assumed the connections it should prove, temporary detentions were ordered for all of the Rio 23 last Friday. Of these, five had been in jail since the eve of the World Cup final, and 18 were now regarded as fugitive.

The crisis surrounding the #PresosDaCopa ('World Cup prisoners') took on an international dimension on Monday, when fugitive Eloísa Samy -- a 45-year old lawyer whose defending activists free of charge is held as proof of criminal involvement -- turned up at the Uruguayan Consulate in Rio to request asylum. The irony was painfully obvious: three decades after the end of military dictatorships in the region, a citizen of a country ruled by a former political prisoner wished to flee to a country ruled by another former political prisoner. Her request was declined on the grounds that the neighbouring country recognises Brazil as a functioning democracy.

That, however, is somewhat beside the point. While Brazil has not become a dictatorship overnight, conservative sectors of the police, the judiciary and the media are being allowed to play fast and loose with the rule of law ahead of the elections, as that fits both into a rightwing opposition strategy (forcing PT to choose between human rights advocacy and being seen as soft on 'public disorder') and the political system's general interest in neutralising what irrupted in 2013. Symptomatically, even if marginal voices in PT have spoken out, president Dilma Rousseff has remained silent and the Minister of Justice has denied any police or judicial wrongdoing.

Right now, it is the resistance of part of the judiciary and the pressure of civil society that have protected the rights of the Rio 23. Given habeas corpus on Wednesday, they should remain free for now, barring further manoeuvres. Yet the process is still going ahead, and apart from the horrible spectacle of seeing the lives of mostly twenty- or thirty-somethings being crushed in the wheels of political machinations, the case creates worries for the future. There is still time to prevent both gross miscarriage of justice and a dangerous precedent for the criminalisation of social movements; but that is likely to require broader political action including the left now in power. Otherwise, this could be a chapter in Latin American history coming full circle in the worst possible way.