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Thursday 22 February 2018

Brazil hit by further protests

A demonstrator holds a Brazilian flag in front of a burning barricade during a protest in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (AP/Felipe Dana)
A demonstrator holds a Brazilian flag in front of a burning barricade during a protest in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (AP/Felipe Dana)
Riot police fire tear gas at demonstrators in Salvador, Brazil (AP/Andre Penner)
A protester kicks another one as he tried to prevent him from breaking a police barrier (AP/Felipe Dana)
Protesters gesture to riot police during a demonstration in Rio (AP)

About 150,000 anti-government demonstrators have again taken to the streets in several Brazilian cities and engaged police in some isolated but intense conflicts.

Anger over political corruption emerged as the unifying issue for the demonstrators, who vowed to stay on the streets until concrete steps are taken to reform the political system.

Across Brazil, protesters gathered to denounce legislation, known as PEC 37, that would limit the power of federal prosecutors to investigate crimes - which many fear would hinder attempts to jail corrupt politicians.

Federal prosecutors were behind the investigation into the biggest corruption case in Brazil's history, the so-called "mensalao" cash-for-votes scheme that came to light in 2005 and involved top aides of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva buying votes for their legislation in congress.

Last year, the supreme court condemned two dozen people in connection to the case, which was hailed as a watershed moment in Brazil's fight against corruption. However, those condemned have yet to be jailed because of appeals, a delay that has enraged Brazilians.

Police estimated that about 60,000 demonstrators gathered in a central square in Belo Horizonte, 30,000 shut down a main business avenue in Sao Paulo, and another 30,000 gathered in Santa Maria, the city in southern Brazil where a nightclub fire killed more than 240 mostly university students, deaths many argued could have been avoided with better government oversight of fire laws.

In Belo Horizonte, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who tried to pass through a barrier and hurled rocks at a car dealership. Salvador also saw protests turn violent.

The angry protests continued despite a prime-time speech the night before from president Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was tortured during Brazil's military dictatorship. During her 10-minute address she backed the right to peaceful protest but sharply condemned violence, vandalism and looting. Ms Rousseff promised she would always battle corruption and that she would meet peaceful protesters, governors and the mayors of big cities to create a national plan to improve urban transport and use oil royalties for investments in education.

Anger over hikes in bus and subway fares in several cities originally ignited the protests, and a brutal police crackdown on demonstrators last week in Sao Paulo sent the nation into the streets during the largest public demonstrations Latin America's biggest nation has seen in two decades. Many Brazilians, shocked by a week of protests and violence, hoped that Ms Rousseff's words after several days of silence from the leader would soothe tensions and help avoid more violence, but not all were convinced by her promises of action.

In the north-eastern city of Salvador, where Brazil's national football team played Italy and won 4-2 in a Confederations Cup match, 5,000 protesters gathered about three miles from the stadium, shouting demands for better schools and transportation and denouncing heavy spending on next year's World Cup. They blocked a main road and clashed with riot police who moved in to clear the street. Protesters said police used rubber bullets and even tossed tear gas canisters from a helicopter hovering overhead. The protesters fled to a nearby shopping mall where they tried to take shelter in an underground parking garage.

Press Association

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