The UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is raising concerns regarding the excessive use of deprivation of liberty and the lack of effective legal assistance to persons arrested and detained in Brazil.
The experts stressed that depriving persons of their liberty was the most common recourse both in terms of administrative detention and the criminal justice system.
“There is a culture of using deprivation of liberty as the norm and not as an exceptional measure reserved for serious offenses as required by international human rights standards,” said human rights expert Roberto Garretón at the end of the expert group’s ten-day official visit to Brazil.
“In the majority of criminal cases, alternative measures to detention were not applied even in cases of minor offenses,” said the Working Group’s member, recalling that minor offenses like theft can result in detention.
Brazil currently has one of the highest prison populations in the world with around 550,000 persons, 217,000 of whom are in pre-trial detention.
The plight of the poor in accessing justice has been a recurring issue throughout the visit. The majority of those in Brazil’s prisons are poor and cannot afford effective legal assistance. Free legal aid offered by public defenders seemed to be the only available option.
However, the experts noted, the number of public defenders in the country is severely inadequate. Detainees often met their public defender for the first time only at the court house when a hearing was about to take place.
They have also learned that States like Santa Catalina, Paraná and Goiânia did not have public defenders at all.
“In a country where the majority of those in prison are poor and cannot afford lawyers of their choice, it is extremely worrying that there is not enough legal assistance available to those who need it,” Mr. Garretón said.
“We found numerous cases where detainees were arrested, brought into detention and had to wait for months to see a public defender,” said Vladimir Tochilovsky, the other member of the Working Group’s delegation, stressing that lengthy pre-trial detention is also a serious problem in Brazil.
“Even worse, some have waited years before they could get a trial and find out what the charges against them were.”
The need to rigorously protect the right to fair trial of those arrested, including the right to be brought promptly before a court, was constantly raised by the Working Group throughout the visit.
They also expressed serious concerns regarding the arrests and compulsory confinement of drug addicts. These often involved young, poor and homeless drug users who were arrested, allegedly in an effort to ‘clean up’ the streets.
Pressure to further enforce these types of arrests was reportedly due to major upcoming events such as the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, which Brazil will host.
The expert body warned against arrests made on the basis of discrimination, and also addressed issues in relation to the detention of adolescents and persons with mental illness. It urged the Government to ensure that deprivation of liberty in all these situations would be in conformity with international human rights standards.
During its first official visit to Brazil from 18 to 28 March 2013, the group of independent experts designated by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of arbitrary deprivation of liberty visited various detention facilities, including prisons, police stations, detention centers for migrants and psychiatric institutions.
The Group’s delegation traveled to Campo Grande, Fortaleza, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, in addition to Brasília, where they met with the relevant authorities from the executive, legislative, judicial organs at the federal and state levels as well as civil society organizations.
The visiting delegation consisted of Mr. Garretón (from Chile) and Mr. Tochilovsky (from Ukraine). The other three members of the Working Group are El Hadji Malick Sow who is the Chair-Rapporteur (from Senegal), Shaheen Sardar Ali who is the Vice-Chair (from Pakistan) and Mads Andenas (from Norway).
The Working Group will present its report on the visit to the Human Rights Council in 2014.