In September 2018, it was reported that anthropologist and law professor Debora Diniz was forced into exile after suffering months of death threats and harassment in retaliation for her research and advocacy related to abortion rights.
Diniz is a professor at the University of Brasília’s (UnB) law faculty and a prominent researcher in the fields of bioethics, human rights, feminism and health. In 2017, Diniz became a more public figure when she provided expert assistance for initiating a legal case demanding the decriminalization of abortion during the first twelve weeks of a pregnancy. The left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and the bioethics research institute Anis, which Diniz co-founded, submitted an amicus brief to Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court in March 2017. The court later invited Diniz to provide her expertise on the matter during a series of public hearings.
Since May 2018, Diniz reported an escalation in aggression towards her, which ranged from online harassment on social media and over the telephone to death threats. Such harassment and threats reportedly extended to her family and some of her colleagues and students at UnB. Diniz sought a criminal investigation, which so far has led to the police identifying one suspect allegedly involved in a minor harassment incident. Those responsible for the ongoing death threats against Diniz have yet to be identified.
When aggressors began attempting to physically intimidate Diniz at public events, she decided to cancel many public appearances. By July 2018, Brazilian authorities registered Diniz for a government program for the protection of human rights defenders. Program officials reportedly advised Diniz to leave the country for her own safety. As of this report, Diniz and her family reside outside Brazil.
Diniz has since received public support from the United Nations and the Brazilian Labour Prosecution Service, among other institutions, as news of the threats became public. The University of Brasília also published a public statement supporting Diniz: “we reaffirm our commitment to the defense of professor Debora Diniz’s freedom and physical integrity, in an effort to amplify the public debate around academic freedom and around human rights defenders’ activities in the country.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violent threats and harassment targeting a scholar in apparent retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity and associations. State authorities have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect scholars, students, and others targeted for such conduct, including by investigating violent threats and holding perpetrators accountable. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, violent threats and harassment have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.