Understanding Brazil’s National Security Law

. Sep 10, 2018
adelio bolsonaro national security law Feds used National Security Law to indict Adelio Oliveira

Moments after stabbing far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the abdomen, Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, 40, was arrested by the police. He confessed to the crime and was transferred to a federal prison in Campo Grande, in the center-west state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Then, he was indicted for a “personal assault driven by political non-conformity” under Brazil’s National Security Law, for which he could receive up to 10 years in prison (the sentence could double if it results in “severe body lesions” – which was the case).

The National Security Law was passed in 1983, in the waning moments of the military dictatorship. The law revolves around crimes against the “political and social order,” giving the Federal Police the jurisdiction to investigate such crimes. It is a revamped version of a law created in 1935, under President Getulio Vargas, and amended over the years by authoritarian regimes.

Yet it still stands, long after the country became a democracy again in 1985. The new version, however, acts against crimes that threaten the country’s national sovereignty, its democratic institutions, and the heads of all branches of government.

While at first glance it might seem like something a state of exception would use to punish political detractors, being indicted under the National Security Law doesn’t mean that Mr. Bolsonaro’s attacker will receive harsher punishment. As a matter of fact, attempted murder incurs a penalty of between 12 and 30 years in jail.

What the Feds did in this case was to use the law to federalize the investigation. Otherwise, the local precinct of Juiz de Fora, a medium-sized city in the state of Minas Gerais, would be responsible for the case.

NGOs against the National Security Law

Since the 1990s, NGOs and social movements have fought for the National Security Law to be revoked, as it has been used to target indigenous and landless groups that invade rural properties, and some political demonstrations.

In 2000, the Landless Workers’ Movement, among the largest social movements in Latin America, carried out a series of occupations of public buildings. In May of that year, nine militants were arrested and indicted under the National Security Law. Six years later, 116 militants of another landless group were indicted after having occupied and damaged the Congress building.

For the best part of the past two decades, several bills to repeal the law have been presented in the lower house – but have yet to be voted on.

In March 2016, prior to the Rio Olympics, then President Dilma Rousseff signed the Anti-terrorism Law, which defines terrorism as acts of “arson, depredation, destruction, explosion and pillage against public or private property, as well as means of transportation.” It establishes even harsher penalties than the National Security Law.


The law, a heritage from authoritarian times, has never been a consensus in Brazil, even among scholars. The Brazilian Bar Association says it “limits individual rights” and weakens the democratic order. In 2016, Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso said during the trial of a man who was arrested carrying two grenades (which can only be used by the Army):

“It is about time that we get past the National Security Law, an instrument which dates back to 1983, during the Cold War. It carries a set of principles that are not compatible with the Brazilian democratic order. For years now, the Democratic Defense Bill has been in Congress waiting to replace the current legislation, which can no longer be enforced in today’s times. It comes from an era where political opponents were treated as enemies.”

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