SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: October 19, 2018

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro

Region & Country:Americas | Brazil

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On October 19, 2018, six unidentified individuals reportedly attacked a group of roughly fifteen students from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO), apparently for distributing political flyers at a public square just outside the UNIRIO campus.

The students, who have withheld their names for security purposes, were reportedly canvassing on behalf of Fernando Haddad, a candidate in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election. Sources indicate that the attackers approached the students, shouting death threats at them and demanding they abandon the square. One of the students was allegedly punched in the back by the men, who repeated their demands that the students abandon the premises. One of the suspects allegedly used an iron bar to attack another student who tried to intervene. He posted a picture with a black eye on social media, relaying the incident, which other students present at the scene corroborated on other social media posts. According to the victims and other eyewitnesses, some of the attackers shouted the name of Jair Bolsonaro, then a far-right presidential candidate who ultimately won the election.

According to the students, police officers later arrived on the scene and advised them not to press charges, in order to avoid retaliation. One police officer reportedly said that “[the investigation] would be a dead end and your faces would end up becoming known around here,” suggesting that pressing charges would put the students at risk. The police have not publicly commented on the incident, as of this report.

The attack on the student canvassers appears to be part of a series of violent threats and attacks on Brazil’s higher education community, among others, during the 2018 presidential elections. These have included targeted attacks and threats against students and faculty (particularly members of minority communities), violent clashes between opposing students groups, police raids on campuses, and the seizure of student and faculty materials..

UNIRIO’s administration suspended all classes scheduled for the day after the election, based on concerns that more violence could erupt, making it difficult for students to access the campus. The university council reportedly approved this measure and also published a statement condemning the attacks against the students, describing them as having a “political and racial connotation.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about a violent attack on students in an apparent effort to retaliate against or restrict their peaceful exercise of the right to freedoms of expression, association, and assembly — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Brazil is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to protect the peaceful exercise of such rights and to investigate and hold responsible perpetrators of such attacks. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, violent attacks intended to restrict or retaliate against student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.