Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro violates basic human rights and puts the country's democracy at risk, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned Wednesday in a scathing assessment of the far-right leader.
In a series of criticisms, the NGO's chief Kenneth Roth accused Bolsonaro of giving a green light to police to use lethal force without proper justification and undermining efforts to fight torture. Roth also charged Bolsonaro with attacking environmental activists and encouraging illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest, where widespread fires in recent months sparked a global outcry and a diplomatic spat over Bolsonaro's handling of the crisis.
"We see President Bolsonaro using rhetoric and policies to attack the most basic human rights," Roth said in São Paulo.
Roth's comments come after HRW held a board meeting in Brazil for the first time to "demonstrate our concern" and help Brazilians fighting back against these "anti-rights policies." During their visit, HRW directors met with Rodrigo Maia, the powerful head of the lower chamber of Congress, and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo in Brasília.
Neither Bolsonaro nor senior members of his government accepted requests for face-to-face talks, Roth said. Rio de Janeiro state Governor Wilson Witzel also declined to meet. A supporter of Bolsonaro's anti-crime rhetoric, Witzel has adopted a hardline security strategy that has fueled a surge in police killings this year.
Justice Minister Sérgio Moro "only told us that he would meet with us as we were on the plane leaving Brasília yesterday, so after he knew that we were no longer there," Roth told reporters.
Bolsonaro's office did not immediately respond to AFP's request for comment.
The tough-talking Bolsonaro frequently lambasts opponents or critics in Brazil and abroad—including political leaders, activists and media outlets—sometimes resorting to vulgar rhetoric to insult them.
Since taking power in January, Bolsonaro has been the target of massive nationwide demonstrations over his policies ranging from education budget cuts to a loosening of gun laws.
Though his fans have taken to the streets to show support, it's generally in smaller numbers.
In early September, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed concern over "a narrowing of the democratic space" in Brazil. Roth warned Brazil's democracy, though strong, was at stake in a political battle for the country's soul. "It's not clear which way the battle is going to go," he said, even suggesting Brazil was on the path to becoming an "elected dictatorship."
"A president, just because he is elected, is not above the law," Roth said. "Many autocrats around the world try to place themselves above the law, they say 'I was elected, I don't need to follow the law, I don't need to respect human rights.' "That's how you become an autocrat, that's how authoritarian governments emerge, that's how you get this kind of elected dictatorship."