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Portugal: Authorities Bring Charges Against Women Activists

This post is part of our special coverage Europe in Crisis.

Following a series of demonstrations against austerity in Portugal, the country's national police force, known as the Public Security Police (PSP), and the prosecutor general's office, known as the the Public Ministry (MP), have faced heavy criticism for their decision to bring legal action against several protesters and activists.

Myriam Zaluar, a freelance journalist, teacher, and one of the founders of the movement Precários Inflexíveis (Inflexible Precarious) [pt], was indicted on charges of qualified disobedience related to having organized a collective registration of unemployed people at one of the centers of the Institute of Employment and Vocational Training (IEFP, the governmental body responsible for training and employment). The intention of this symbolic act of protest was to draw attention to unemployment in Portugal [not all the unemployed are registered there and the statistics only show the numbers released by IEFP].

Myriam became known in 2011 for an open-letter she wrote to the Prime Minister, widely shared on social networks [pt], following his recommendation for the unemployed to emigrate.

 Call for solidarity with Myriam Zaluar. Image shared by  Artigo 21º

Call for solidarity with Myriam Zaluar. Image shared by  Artigo 21º

This time, Myriam wanted to show that the unemployment figures in Portugal are flawed, but police considered her action to be a non-authorized demonstration – although it only involved four direct participants and the distribution of flyers – and thus authorities should had been informed 48 hours before. Myriam rejects the accusation and denies having committed any crime.

The case has raised questions about restrictions on freedom of expression, the definition of demonstration, and police intervention in political matters, as well as sparked a heated discussion online. According to the Movimento Sem Emprego (MSE, Movement Without a Job) [pt], the situation is an example of authorities attempting to intimidate citizens in order to stop them from taking to the streets with their demands. Laura Fortuna Pinto commented [pt] on Facebook:

Por mais vezes que leia o artigo, ñ consigo perceber o fundamento da acusação. Mas das 4 pessoas presentes no protesto foi a única a ser notificada? Este país está a ficar estranho!!!

No matter how many times I read the article, I simply can't understand the basis of the accusation. But from the four people present at the protest was she the only one being notified? This country is becoming weird!!!

On the day of the first court hearing – which was postponed in the end – several people staged a demonstration [pt] in support of Myriam that was discussed on social networks and broadcast by traditional media.

The case of Mariana Avelãs

A similar case is that of Mariana Avelãs, who belongs to the movement Que se Lixe a Troika (Screw Troika) [pt]. Police filed charges against her following a press conference announcing the September 15 protests in which thousands took to the streets in Portugal and Spain to demonstrate against government austerity measures. By the end of November, P3 reported [pt]:

Segundo Mariana Avelãs, nesse dia, a PSP dirigiu-se aos 15 membros, que ergueram uma faixa do movimento, para pedir a identificação de uma pessoa, mas garantiram que “não haveria consequências”. (…)
Contudo, (…) “duas ou três semanas depois” foi informada de que “estava a ser alvo de denúncia de um crime”. A activista social confirmou ter sido constituída arguida a 8 de Novembro pelo crime de organização de manifestação não comunicada. (…)
Mariana Avelãs descreve a acção da polícia como uma tentativa de “criminalizar os movimentos” para dar a ideia de que são “terroristas e revolucionários”.

According to Mariana Avelãs, that day PSP addressed the 15 members, who had raised a banner for the movement, asking for the identification of one person, but they assured them that “there wouldn't be any consequences”. (…)

However, (…) “two or three weeks later” she was informed that she “legal action had been brought against her”. The social activist confirmed on November 8 she was charged with organizing an unannounced demonstration. (…)

Mariana Avelãs describes the actions of authorities as an attempt to “criminalize movements” in order to give the impression that they are “terrorists and revolutionaries”.

Paulo Jorge Vieira [pt] echoed Mariana's outrage:

Parece ser uma anedota mas não o é. Assim se limita o uso do espaço público na sociedade portuguesa nos nossos dias. A situação é, no seu todo, demasiado grave e realmente limitadora do direitos de associação, manifestação ou simples encontro no espaço público das cidades portuguesas.

It seems like a joke but it isn't. This is how the use of public space in Portuguese society is limited nowadays. The situation is, as a whole, very serious and truly restrictive of the right to associate, demonstrate or simply meet in a public space within Portuguese cities.

Stones or camera?

The massive November 14 demonstration, which saw thousands of Europeans coming out to protest against austerity measures, ended in Lisbon with a group of protesters throwing stones in front of the Parliament building. Police have faced criticism from the public for their reaction to the protesters. In the days that followed, police tried to identify as many protesters as possible, using not only the images collected by the agents themselves, but also videos posted by other people on YouTube, and even – in a case that ended with the resignation of the managing editor of the public channel RTP – the images collected by television channels on site.

It was with disbelief that Paula Montez, who participated in the demonstration, received some time after a notification from the prosecutor general's office, in which she was accused of assaulting police officers. In a widely circulated post [pt] from mid-December, Paula said:

Ontem apresentei-me no DIAP [Departamento de Investigação e Acção Penal] acompanhada de um advogado. Foi-me lido o auto de denúncia e mostradas imagens captadas na manifestação. As imagens todas elas de má qualidade e inconclusivas, mostram-me de braço no ar com um objecto na mão que os “denunciantes” referiram ser pedras. Na verdade o objecto que tenho na mão é nada mais do que a minha máquina fotográfica que costumo elevar devido à minha estatura ser baixa para captar imagens, como sempre tenho feito em todas as manifestações e protestos onde vou[...];além disso, na foto de qualidade duvidosa, onde se vê o meu braço erguido segurando o tal objecto (máquina fotográfica) pode-se ler na legenda que arremessei à polícia cerca de 20 pedras ou outros objectos…

Agora pergunto eu: se a PSP me identificou a arremessar 20 pedras e a colocar em causa a sua integridade física, por que não fui eu detida logo ali? Por que não fui de imediato impedida de mandar mais projécteis que pudessem atentar contra os agentes? Sim, como é possível ter sido vista a atirar coisas, contarem uma a uma as cerca de 20 pedras que eu não atirei, mas que alguém afirma ter-me visto atirar, e deixarem-me à solta para atirar mais?

Yesterday I showed up at DIAP [Department of Investigation and Penal Action] accompanied by a lawyer. I was read the complaint and shown the images captured at the rally. The images – all of which are shoddy and inconclusive – show me with an arm in the air with an object in my hand that “informants” described as stones. In fact, the object in my hand is nothing more than my camera which I usually raise due to my short stature — as I have always done in all the demonstrations and protests I go to [...], in addition, in the photo of dubious quality, where you see my arm raised holding an object (camera) the captions reads that I threw around 20 stones or other objects at police…

Now I wonder: if the PSP identified me throwing 20 stones and putting them in harm's way, why wasn't I stopped right there? Why wasn't I immediately prevented from launching more projectiles that could undermine the agents? Yes, how is it possible that I was seen throwing things, [they] counted one by one about 20 stones that I did not throw, that someone claims to have seen me throwing, yet they left me alone to throw more?

Paula could face serious charges of rioting or causing damage. She was notified of the complaint by mobile phone, and sought help from netizens to prove her innocence:

Peço a quem tiver imagens minhas na manifestação de 14 de Novembro (ou noutra manifestação qualquer) a tirar fotografias que as envie a fim de constituírem prova neste processo. Obrigada pela vossa solidariedade.

I ask whoever has images of me taking photos during the November 14 demonstration (or in any other demonstration) to send them my way in order to use them as evidence in this process. Thank you for your solidarity.

Around the same time, a video showing people in the assembly throwing stones that suggested the presence of undercover agents began to make the rounds on the Internet:

Ivo Gonçalves, on his personal blog [pt], questioned the actions of the PSP and the MP:

[...]não creio  que a PSP tenha cobertura legal, vocação, e até recursos adequados para fazer recolha e análise de informações na área política. (…)

Finalizando, é evidente que tudo isto vai contribuir para refrear a vontade de participação em manifestações.

I don't believe that PSP has the legal status, the vocation, or even the proper resources to collect and analyze information from the political arena. (…)

Finally, it is evident that all of this will work to curb the people's willingness to participate in demonstrations.

A new hearing in the trial of Myriam Zaluar is scheduled for March 13. Paula Montez and Mariana Avelãs await new developments and are released under the condition that they do not change their residence without reporting to the authorities, and that they check in with police anytime requested. The crime of qualified disobedience is punishable with imprisonment up to two years or a fine. Participation in a riot is punishable with imprisonment up to one year or a fine, and the crime of causing damage up to three years in prison.

This post is part of our special coverage Europe in Crisis.

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