Not 'terrorists': Relatives defend Brazil riot suspects

Under a scorching sun, a handful of relatives of hundreds of women detained after Brazil's violent January 8 riots waited in vain this week for a chance to see their loved ones.

In a chorus of denials, they insisted the women had nothing to do with the violence or destruction of government property, and were scooped up in an overly wide dragnet.

"These people were not after the president (leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva)," a man in his 50s who introduced himself as "Papi," told AFP outside the Colmeia women's prison.

"What unites (them) is indignation because the election didn't seem transparent, it wasn't transparent, do you understand? There were many doubts."

Like others gathered outside the prison gates, "Papi" did not want to give his full name or even his relation to anyone inside.

But he insisted his relative was not among the thousands of rioters who violently stormed the presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court a week after Lula's inauguration.

Analysts say the demonstrators were fueled by a massive disinformation campaign led by far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro that fed fears of a "communist" regime under Lula and raised doubts about the credibility of an election the leftist leader won by a razor-thin margin.

The protesters left behind graffiti calling for a military coup.

More than 2,000 suspected rioters were netted in the roundup that followed on January 8 and 9.

Of those, nearly 500 women have been held at Colmeia ever since, waiting for a decision on whether they will remain behind bars in preventive custody or stand trial in freedom.

Some 900 men are held at the Papuda prison elsewhere in the capital.

The alleged rioters face an array of charges under an umbrella of "anti-democratic acts," including involvement in an attempted coup d'etat, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.

- 'Treated as terrorists' -

Most were rounded up at an encampment where Bolsonaro backers stationed themselves after the rancorous October vote, and from where they traveled the eight kilometers (five miles) on January 8 to the Three Powers Square where they invaded the seats of power.

"Papi" said his relative arrived in Brasilia on the day of the uprising by bus from her home in northeastern Brazil more than 1,500 kilometers away.

But he insisted she protested "peacefully" before returning to the encampment to avoid getting caught up in the clashes. Here she was detained.

"She was calm. She believed that at the camp they would take her details and let her go home," he told AFP.

"The press... is calling these 1,500 people terrorists," "Papi" said of the hundreds still in detention.

"In reality, there were, let's say, approximately ten vandals, but all 1,500 people are being treated as terrorists."

Video footage of the riots showed a flood of people sowing destruction in their rampage through the official buildings.

"Papi" said he last spoke to his relative on January 9.

"Nobody has had contact with the prisoners... only the lawyers," he complained.

- 'No idea' -

Over the past week, just over 1,450 custody hearings have been held for alleged rioters, according to the Federal Supreme Court overseeing the investigation.

A prosecutor told AFP that custody hearings must happen within 24 hours "in a normal situation, with a normal crime" and a judge must decide immediately whether to free a suspect or order their continued pre-trial detention.

In exceptional cases, such as this one, that deadline can be extended without limit, the prosecutor explained.

Some relatives outside the Colmeia prison told AFP they had been sending notes to loved ones inside through visiting lawyers.

"We have information from the guards that (the prisoners) are being well treated, but our right so see them... has been denied," said one man, 30, waiting with his girlfriend for news about her mother.

Every morning the couple arrives at the prison at 8:00 am, waits, goes for lunch and returns, remaining until nightfall.

So far, it has been to no avail.

"We have no idea when they will be released or when we will be able to see them, to say hello, bring them a bar of soap, shampoo or some cookies," said the man.

He also claimed his girlfriend's mother had not participated in the vandalism -- for which he said those responsible must be made to pay.

"I just want her out as quickly as possible," he said.

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