Brazil 2014

Drones To Monitor Brazil's Soccer Stadiums - And Protests?

With the World Cup and Olympics arriving, tough security plans are being overseen by the Brazilian Air Force. Nationwide protests have provided yet another "event" to be monitored.

A Brazilian Elbit Hermes 450 drone
A Brazilian Elbit Hermes 450 drone
Eleonora Gosman

SAO PAULO - The opening game for the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brasilia last Saturday set in motion a huge security plan, driven above all by the Brazilian armed forces.

While hundreds of demonstrators were being constrained near the Mané Garrincha Stadium shortly before the Brazil-Japan match, Israeli-made unmanned drones and helicopters were filming the land and sky in real time. The events were followed live from the National Command and Control Center.

That day, a controversial measure came into effect: the temporary closing down of Brazilian air space. This means the Brazilian Air Force has the prerogative to shoot down suspicious aircrafts without prerequisite presidential permission.

In peacetime, it has generally prohibited taking down “enemy” objects without prior authorization by the head of state. The new “license” granted to the Brazilian air force gives it autonomy one hour before and four hours after the Confederations Cup matches. This suggests that the security blueprint of the international soccer Confederations Cup was designed as a trial run for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Pope Francis’s visit this summer during the Catholic World Youth Day Festival, and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The state-of-the-art surveillance and military equipment comes from abroad: the unmanned drones were purchased from Israel, the tanks from Germany, and the anti-aircraft defense system comes from Russia.

But there has been an unexpected twist since protests began across Brazil two weeks ago against public transportation fee hikes and the massive spending for the international sporting events. Part of the arsenal, which includes helicopters with cameras, was used this past week in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro – two Confederations Cup venues -- to film the hundreds of Brazilian “troublemakers” who came to the stadiums to protest the federal government’s over-spending on international sports events.

The security coordination centers, which monitor each of the six cities hosting the Confederations Cup, collected images of the protests. With these, the police troops were then able to suppress potential "suspicious" groups with rubber bullets and tear gas wherever they were forming.

Monitoring “suspects” from on high

On May 29, after the Brazilian air force revealed it had been granted autonomy to intercept “hostile” objects, it clarified right away that this would not imply risks for the public. "The drone flights over the stadiums pose no risk to the spectators. And we will not always be positioned over the crowd, but will be in nearby areas where it is possible to watch the surroundings and obtain the pictures we are interested in," said Colonel Donald Gramkow, commander of the air force squadron that operates the drones.

The drones are equipped with cameras, radars and sensors to “X-ray” the surveillance area and the movement of “suspect” people and vehicles.

The security blueprint includes the creation of a new organization: the Center for Prevention and Combating Terrorism, which operates under the army’s responsibility. That is where they decide which troops should operate in the different stadiums according to how the matches develop. These are the troops that went into action on Saturday in Brasilia and the ones that acted on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.

President Dilma Rousseff, who endured incessant booing alongside FIFA president Joseph Blatter last Saturday, recently justified the concentration of repressive power in the army’s hands during large sporting or religious events. She sustained that “the federal government has the obligation to act on the issues that are under its responsibility.” This approach was formalized through an agreement between the Ministries of Defense and Justice. It granted the army, navy, and the air force the responsibility for counter-terrorism activities. The army was assigned the task of suppressing any attacks while the federal police was assigned intelligence.

Finally, the provincial police is there for the control of the common mortals who just want to enjoy the games. But the dividing line between civic protests, like yesterday’s around the Maracana, and potentially terrorist ones is unclear. In any case, everything seems to indicate that Rousseff did not imagine there would be public protests during the Cup.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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