On March 2, 2021, the former rector of Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel) and epidemiologist Pedro Rodrigues Curi Hallal, and his colleague Professor Eraldo dos Santos Pinheiro, were subject to criminal investigation and public sanction in retaliation for their public criticisms of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Hallal conducts COVID-19 research and became a household-name in Brazil during the pandemic, researching the disease and its spread across Brazil. In an interview with Agência Pública, Hallal stated that he considers himself to be one of the most publicly critical voices of President Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.
In UFPel’s 2021 rectorial elections, the university’s academic community voted overwhelmingly for Pinheiro to succeed Hallal as rector for the 2021-24 period. President Bolsonaro instead appointed one of Pinheiro’s opponents in the election, Isabela Fernandes Andrade. This was one of 25 rector appointments in which Bolsonaro did not consider the results of the universities’ rectorial elections.
At an official, online UFPel event on January 7, 2021, Hallal and Pinheiro called Bolsonaro’s appointment of Andrade “a blow to the academic community,” stated that the president was a defender of torture, and alleged he was responsible for creating instability at universities. Hallal further stated that the university would do everything in its power to appeal the president’s decision.
Federal Deputy Bibo Nunes opened a federal investigation into the comments with the Comptroller General of the Union (CGU) of Brazil, stating that he intended to have Hallal dismissed from his position. On March 2, 2021, the CGU ruled out any serious infractions. However, both Hallal and Pinheiro signed so-called Conduct Adjustment Agreements (“TACs”) under circumstances that are unclear. In an interview with Agência Pública, Hallal stated that he signed the TAC, after consulting his lawyers, because the TAC does not involve any admission of guilt, and government officials are prevented from investigating individuals for the same matter covered in a TAC.TACs are extrajudicial modes of dispute resolution under which so-called “aggressors” commit to some change in behavior, and are subject to legal sanction if they do not meet those conditions. According to the TAC, Professors Hallal and Pinheiro had made “a disrespectful statement directed at the President of the Republic,” in their “workplace.” Under the TACs, neither professor could breach Article 117, V, of Law 8112, prohibiting public officials from “promoting expressions of appreciation or disapproval in the workplace” for a two year period. During this timeframe, neither professor will be permitted to criticize President Bolsonaro at a university event.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about official sanctions in retaliation for the legitimate criticism of a government official. Legal actions targeting political public expression by scholars, relating to their field of expertise, violate the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression — rights that are protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Brazil is a party. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such actions chill academic freedom and harm democratic society generally.