(São Paulo) – President Dilma Rousseff should veto a counterterrorism bill whose overbroad and vague language could be used to undermine freedom of association and expression in Brazil, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the president.

“The imprecise wording of the counterterrorism bill could allow the state to prosecute and severely punish people merely for expressing opinions,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “President Rousseff should defend Brazilians’ fundamental rights and veto the bill.”

Students demonstrate in front of Brazil´s National Congress in Brasilia to demand more investment in public education. June 27, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

While there is no universally established definition of terrorism under international law, international standards generally provide that the term should not be used to criminalize acts that lack an intent to cause death, serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages. The new bill does just that, Human Rights Watch said. It defines as “terrorist” acts those that merely expose people or property “to danger,” a vague concept not explained in the document and which could be misused to stifle peaceful protests.

Congress approved the bill on February 24, 2016. Rousseff must sign or veto it by March 16. She could also veto specific provisions within it.

The draft law also establishes the crime of “advocating” terrorism without any explanation of what “advocating” entails; the crime of carrying out “actions in preparation” of a terrorist act, without explaining what type of actions those may be; and the crime of “promoting” or “joining” terrorist organizations, without defining what constitutes a “terrorist organization.”

The bill does include an important safeguard, stating that its definition of terrorism does not apply to political demonstrations, social movements, unions, and religious or professional movements that engage in the defense of “constitutional rights, guarantees, and freedoms.”

However, this clause would be open to interpretation by judges, who might rule that a legitimate cause promoted by a group does not fit this category and that the group is therefore not protected. In addition, the safeguard does not apply to such acts as “advocating” terrorism or carrying out “actions in preparation” of a terrorist act.

“An individual who makes a comment on social media that could be interpreted as supporting a terrorist could potentially face up to 13 years in prison under the bill,” Canineu said. “This is a clear threat to freedom of expression.”