RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - A judge has ordered Olympics organizers 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 on Tuesday taking up impeachment proceedings against suspended President Dilma Rousseff, many are increasingly taking their political grievances to Olympic events. Their almost universal slogan, emblazoned on handwritten signs and T-shirts and spreading like wildfire on social media, is "Fora Temer,'' a call for the removal of interim President Michel Temer.
But a federal judge in Rio ruled Monday night that nothing in special legislation passed ahead of the games restricts Brazilians' constitutional right to free expression. In a temporary injunction, which can be appealed, he threatened to levy fines of up to $3,200 on anyone who removes peaceful protesters from venues.
The International Olympic Committee bans political statements during the games and has pleaded with fans not to disrupt competition. Rio's 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.
Politics inside Olympic venues 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 while she awaits impeachment trial, 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 deep recession.
Protests inside the venues have been sporadic and mostly peaceful, but the attempts to ban them are viewed by some Brazilians as a sign of government censorship. On Sunday, a Brazilian volunteer with the IOC said he quit to protest to what he called violations of freedom of speech.
In one particularly graphic example, four heavily armed military commandos grabbed a seated man at an archery event Saturday and pulled him from the stands with fans reacting. The incident was caught on a cellphone and shared almost 3 million times on Facebook.
To get around the ban, 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 emblematic Olympic rings.
Vinicius Lummertz, president of Embratur, the government-run foreign tourism board, said he has no problem with peaceful protests inside stadium as long as the games aren't disturbed.
"It's democracy in action,'' he told The Associated Press, dismissing concerns that 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.''
Still, 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.''