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Jean Wyllys, a gay congressman flees Bolsonaro's 'dangerous' Brazil

Rachel Holman | Jean Wyllys, one of Brazil’s first openly gay federal lawmakers, in Paris on March 19, 2019

Jean Wyllys, one of Brazil’s first openly gay federal lawmakers, is living in exile after renouncing his congressional seat over death threats. He told FRANCE 24 the country’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a threat to activists.

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Wyllys announced in January that he was giving up his seat in Brazil’s chamber of deputies (the lower house of Congress) out of fear for his life. A fierce human rights advocate, he was due to be sworn in for a third consecutive term as a representative for Rio de Janeiro state in February. Instead, he is now living in self-imposed exile in Berlin, Germany, where he is pursuing a PhD.

“I did not resign, because I was never sworn into office. I renounced the term I was elected to. I did so because of the death threats I had been receiving for some time in Brazil,” Wyllys told journalists in Paris on Tuesday.

Wyllys said the threats against him began shortly after he was elected to office nearly nine years ago as a candidate for the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party, an offshoot of the Worker’s Party.

“(They) began in 2011, during my first term. Initially, they were made on the ‘deep web’ by people who hated feminists and LGBT,” he said. “The threats were clearly linked to my politics and the fact that I am openly gay.”

Wyllys was also the target of a sustained smear campaign on social media that spread false rumours he engaged in pedophilia. He accused Bolsonaro, an obscure lawmaker at the time, of helping to orchestrate the campaign. Before reinventing himself as a politician committed to fighting corruption, Bolsonaro was arguably best known for his frequent homophobic, racist and misogynistic language. He and Wyllys were natural enemies, and often clashed on the congressional floor. In 2016, Wyllys spat at Bolsonaro during impeachment proceedings against then president Dilma Roussef.

“Even though I am not a member of Dilma Roussef’s party – I was a member of the opposition – I spoke out in defence of democracy and of Dilma Roussef’s democratic government. Because it was obvious to me that Dilma Roussef had been ousted by a coup d’état,” he said.

It was around this time that Wyllys said the smear campaign against him intensified. In response, he created a website to refute the allegations. But it wasn’t until the execution-style murder of his close friend Marielle Franco – a black, feminist, lesbian councilwoman for the city of Rio de Janeiro – on March 14, 2018, that he truly began to fear for his life.

‘Who ordered Marielle’s assassination?’

“In March 2018, Marielle Franco was assassinated. Also starting in March 2018, I began receiving new death threats, which were clearly linked to criminal militia organisations,” Wyllys said.

Wyllys explained that militias control much of Brazil illegally, including public services and voting districts. He said that two police officers arrested earlier this month in connection with Franco’s death were known militia members, and drew a direct link between Bolsonaro and the paramilitary groups.

“Before becoming president, Jair Bolsonaro made a number of comments as a lawmaker in support of the country’s militia and their continued existence,” Wyllys said. “Bolsonaro and his son [Flavio] have created room for these militias.”

Wyllys went on to claim that one of the two police officers arrested in Franco’s murder was a neighbor of Bolsonaro.

“There is substantial evidence of obvious links between the Bolsonaro family and these criminal militias,” he said.

“Beyond the hit men who killed Marielle, what we want to know is: who ordered her assassination?”

‘It became clear to me that I was not going to live’

The circumstances surrounding Franco’s death and the credibility of the new threats against Wyllys prompted the federal chamber of deputies to assign him a security detail.

“My death became so natural it was seen as an established fact,” he said. “They escorted me from home to work and then back again in a bulletproof car. This meant that every other area of my life ceased to exist. I was living in a sort of prison.”

Although the new security measures cut into Wyllys’ ability to campaign for a third term, he was re-elected to Congress in October 2018.

Shortly afterwards, he filed a complaint with the Organisation of American States (OAS), which found that his life was at “grave and urgent risk”. It ordered the Brazilian government to “take any measures necessary” to protect Wyllys and his family.

Wyllys said that the Brazilian government ignored the OAS report, blaming the decision on rampant homophobia. The number of violent LGBT deaths reported have more than tripled in the country since 2001. Last year, at least 420 people are believed to have been killed or to have committed suicide as a result of discrimination, according to LGBT rights group the Grupo Gay de Bahia.

“It became clear to me that I was not going to live. And I realised that I could only continue to fight for the causes I believed in if I were alive,” Wyllys said. “This became especially clear when my enemy’s family was elected to power. Even more so when I discovered that there were links between Bolsonaro and Marielle Franco’s murderers. So I decided to live here in Europe as an exile.”

Bolsonaro government a ‘danger’ to activists

Wyllys is not the only Brazilian human rights activist to have recently fled the country. Marcia Tiburi, a philosopher and writer who ran for governor of Rio de Janeiro state in 2018 as a candidate for the Worker’s Party, was forced to leave Brazil for the United States because of threats made against her life. Meanwhile, human rights activist Anderson França, who won Brazil’s most prestigious literary prize in 2017 for his debut novel “Rio em Shamas”, fled to Portugal after becoming a target of political prosecution.

Wyllys warned that Bolsonaro’s presidency poses a real threat to other human rights activists and community leaders in the country. During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to ease the country’s gun laws, often posing with his fingers pointed like a handgun.

“His campaign came to be symbolised by this hand gesture,” Wyllys said.

Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a rally at Afonso Pena airport in Curitiba, Brazil on March 28, 2018
Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a rally at Afonso Pena airport in Curitiba, Brazil on March 28, 2018 Heuler Andrey, AFP

“Given this, you can imagine the situation that Brazilian human rights activists find themselves in today,” he said. “In just a few months, the government has already demonstrated the danger it poses to activists, and violence targeting them has increased.”

In the run-up to the final round of Brazil’s presidential elections in October 2018, the investigative website Agencia Publica counted that Bolsonaro supporters had carried out at least 50 politically motivated attacks in 10 days. The violence mostly targeted women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people.

Wyllys said he has no immediate plans to seek political asylum outside of Brazil, but hasn’t ruled out the possibility, saying he had already broached the issue with Canada. In the meantime, he said he will continue to speak out against human rights violations from abroad.

Back in Brazil, Wyllys’ seat has been taken over by David Miranda, another openly gay politician whose husband is renowned American journalist Glenn Greenwald.

“David Miranda is a very good person, who will have a great term in office. But he will be more limited in what he is able to do,” Wyllys said. “He has one advantage, which is that he is the husband of Glenn Greenwald… which means he will enjoy a certain measure of protection. If I have one piece of advice to give David, it would be to take advantage of this security to speak out against attacks on democracy in Brazil.”

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