The Metropolitan police have been accused of using unnecessary force and handing a propaganda coup to Brazil’s far right after a peaceful demonstrator was detained and handcuffed during a protest outside the Brazilian ambassador’s London residence.
Ali Rocha, a 50-year-old Brazilian and British citizen, and her flatmate were intercepted by officers on Sunday lunchtime as they joined a protest against Brazil’s radical rightwing president, Jair Bolsonaro, who was in the UK for the Queen’s funeral.
Rocha, who was carrying three placards denouncing Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon and a backpack containing a loudhailer, was not arrested or charged with any offence.
But she said she was handcuffed for about 20 minutes before being released and escorted past a group of Bolsonaro supporters who had also gathered outside the ambassador’s Mayfair home.
“I was very shocked and shaken and now I’m just angry and disgusted,” said Rocha, a Brazil-born producer and journalist who is a British citizen.
Footage of the incident has been distorted and used to smear the left on social media by members of Brazil’s far right.
Bolsonaro’s politician son Eduardo Bolsonaro shared images of Rocha’s detention with his more than 6.5m followers on Twitter and Instagram, falsely claiming she had been arrested by police. “Woman in [leftwing] T-shirt was arrested while trying to disrupt pro-Bolsonaro protest,” he wrote beneath the minute-long clip.
As Rocha is handcuffed, a narrator in the footage celebrates the police action, saying: “They don’t like communists here [in the UK] either. Look, they’re handcuffing her. She’s been handcuffed and she’s going to jail.”
A Metropolitan police spokesperson confirmed that shortly after 1.10pm on Sunday police stopped two women “who they had reason to suspect may have been in possession of items to commit criminal damage”.
“Both women were searched. One of the women was initially placed in handcuffs to safely facilitate the search after she repeatedly ignored instructions not to place her hands in her pockets. The handcuffs were subsequently removed,” the spokesperson added.
“No items of concern were found on the two women who were stopped and they were allowed to continue on their way without any further action.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on how footage of the incident was being used as far-right propaganda, because of the political nature of the issue.
The incident comes after civil liberties campaigners voiced alarm over the police response to anti-monarchy protesters in the lead-up to the Queen’s funeral.
Rocha, the co-founder of a campaign group called Brazil Matters, said she had wanted to protest Bolsonaro’s “absurd and disrespectful” attempt to exploit the Queen’s funeral for political purposes.
Brazil is two weeks away from a presidential election in which Bolsonaro looks likely to lose power. Reports in the Brazilian media suggested he thought rubbing shoulders with world leaders in London might boost his flagging campaign.
“We didn’t want him to come to London unchallenged,” Rocha said.
“We wanted to protest about his policies of death, his destruction of the Amazon, the genocide of black and Indigenous peoples and the general disrespect to human rights.”
Rocha, who was a friend of Dom Phillips, the British journalist murdered in the Amazon in June with Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, said she was approached by police shortly after reaching the street on which Bolsonaro was staying.
“They came straight at me … [One male officer] grabbed me by the arm and just started taking me to this corner and while he was talking to me he was holding both my wrists really strong. He was hurting my wrists. I was asking him: ‘Why are you holding me? Let me go.’”
“He kept saying: ‘We’ve received some intel that someone in a red T-shirt was going to commit criminal damage … so I’m going to search you and you are detained,” added Rocha, who was wearing a red T-shirt at the time.
Soon after the officer “got the handcuffs out and turned me around and handcuffed me with my hands behind my back”.
“I was in a state of shock … we knew the police were on high alert because of the funeral and all the state leaders that were here but we never expected anything like that.”
Footage of the incident seen by the Guardian shows a male officer searching Rocha’s pockets before handcuffing her and saying: “I told you, ‘Don’t go reaching towards your pockets again – and you reached’ … It’s not my fault you chose not to listen.”
“I felt very disrespected. I’ve never been handcuffed before. I’ve never been detained before,” said Rocha. “Why was I treated this way? So violently, so aggressively.”