RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A judge has ordered organizers of the Rio Olympics to allow peaceful protests inside venues after several fans were escorted out of stadiums for holding up anti-government signs.
As Brazil's political crisis has deepened, with the Senate taking up impeachment proceedings Tuesday against suspended President Dilma Rousseff, many are increasingly voicing their political grievances at Olympic events. Their almost universal slogan, on handwritten signs, T-shirts and social media, is "Fora Temer," a call for the removal of interim President Michel Temer.
The International Olympic Committee bans political statements at the games and has pleaded with fans not to disrupt competition. Cellphone video of fans being removed by security forces has been shared widely on social media, drawing comparisons with the kind of censorship seen during Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
Luis Moreira, one of 50,000 volunteers at the games, sparked something of a media craze by posting a photo of his Olympic credential defaced with a hand-sketched "Fora Temer" sticker. The 25-year-old communications student said he always dreamed of watching the Olympics up close and looked forward to serving as a goodwill ambassador for Rio de Janeiro.
But he says he became disillusioned after seeing four heavily armed military commandos grab a seated man at an archery event Saturday and remove him for holding up an anti-government banner. The incident was caught on a cellphone and shared almost 3 million times on Facebook. Rather than be asked to carry out a similar order, Moreira decided to quit as the coordinator of a group of 30 volunteers at the tennis venue.
"For the IOC to decide what we can and cannot do in my country is not right," Moreira told The Associated Press. "Freedom of speech is guaranteed in our constitution, and the committee can't do anything against that."
A federal judge in Rio agreed. In a temporary injunction issued late Monday, the judge said that nothing in special legislation passed before the games restricts Brazilians' right to free expression. He threatened to levy fines of up to $3,200 on anyone who removes peaceful protesters from venues.
The Rio organizing committee said it plans to ask the judge to reconsider his ruling and will make a final appeal, if necessary.
"This is a global event, and we think and we hope that the stadiums would not become a platform for political debate," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Tuesday, adding that it nonetheless plans to "absolutely" respect Brazilian law.
Protest at the Olympics is nothing new. At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, the head of Russia's Communist Party was told to take down a hammer-and-sickle Soviet banner that he and lawmakers held up.
South America's first games couldn't have come at a more politically sensitive time, with senators expected Tuesday to vote overwhelmingly to allow an impeachment trial against Rousseff to move forward.
Temer, who took over from Rousseff in May, was booed when he spoke at the opening ceremony. His approval ratings in polls are around the same low levels as Rousseff, blamed by many for widespread corruption in the Workers' Party and for steering Latin America's biggest economy into a recession.
To get around the ban on protests inside stadiums, some Brazilians have coordinated with friends each wearing a letter on T-shirts so the message reads "Fora Temer" when they sit in groups. Others carry smaller signs hidden in their belongings, sometimes fashioned with the Olympic rings.
Vinicius Lummertz, president of the government-run tourism board Embratur, said he has no problem with peaceful protests in stadiums as long as the games aren't disturbed.
"It's democracy in action," he told the AP, dismissing concerns the protests could cast Brazil in a negative light. "When you think of the size of this democracy, and the youth of this democracy, it tells good things about us."
He said the protesters don't speak for the vast majority of Brazilians who have grown disillusioned with 13 years of leftist rule under Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
"People who were against Temer's platform were millions, then thousands, then hundreds," he said. "Now they are five or six people who get together."
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wilson contributed to this report.