Death Squads Won’t Die in Brazil

 Death 
        Squads Won't Die in Brazil

Amnesty
International in its latest report on Brazil shows that high levels
of crime continues to drive underfunded, poorly trained and often
corrupt police forces to the further use of repressive methods. Military
and
civil police are responsible for thousands of deaths and human
rights defenders are dismissed as "defenders of criminals".

by:
Alan P. Marcus

 

Thousands
of people were killed in confrontations with the police, often in situations
described by the authorities as "resistance followed by death".
Police were responsible for numerous killings in circumstances suggesting
extrajudicial executions. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be
widespread and systematic in police stations, prisons and juvenile detention
centers. In some cases police reportedly used torture as a method of
extortion.

Mechanisms
put in place by the authorities to encourage complaints did not result
in notable increases in prosecutions or convictions of torturers. Conditions
in prisons continued to deteriorate as a result of overcrowding, long-term
neglect and corruption. Many cases of deaths in custody were recorded
at the hands of police and prison guards, but more often as the result
of inter-prisoner violence committed with the acquiescence or neglect
of the relevant authorities.

Human
rights defenders continued to be intimidated, threatened, attacked and
even killed, especially those denouncing organized crime, impunity and
corruption. Land and environmental activists, as well as indigenous
peoples fighting for land rights were also threatened, attacked and
killed by police or those acting with the acquiescence of the authorities.

Background

President
Fernando Henríque Cardoso’s eight years in office came to an
end last year. Even though important human rights legislation and two
national human rights programs were introduced during this time, many
Brazilians continued to suffer systematic abuse and violations at the
hands of representatives of the state. This was largely because of widespread
impunity and the federal government’s inability to ensure that state
authorities complied with national and international human rights legislation.

Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party won a landslide presidential
election in October and took office in January 2003. Widespread organized
crime, including drug trafficking, kidnapping and gun trafficking, resulted
in continued high levels of urban violence. Popular demands for tougher
public security policies dominated the elections, with many gubernatorial
candidates promising further repressive policing. Those in poor and
marginalized sectors of society continued to suffer most from violent
crime committed by both criminal gangs and corrupt elements within the
police.

Economic
decline in the region impacted negatively on Brazil. Acute levels of
poverty and starvation were strongly criticized by the UN Special Rapporteur
on the right to food, who visited the country in March.

In
June of last year, Brazil ratified the Rome Statute of the International
Criminal Court (ICC). The authorities were pursuing the necessary legislative
reforms to ensure that the exercise of primary jurisdiction matched
the requirements for cooperation with the ICC.

Police
killings, extrajudicial executions and `death squads’

Public
and media concern at high levels of urban violence and crime continued
to drive underfunded, poorly trained and often corrupt police forces
to the further use of repressive methods. Members of the military and
civil police were again responsible for thousands of deaths across the
country. Many of these killings reportedly took place in situations
which indicated excessive use of force or extrajudicial execution.

The
killings were rarely investigated as they were often registered as "resistance
followed by death", a characterization that frequently sought to
blame the victim. According to the São Paulo police Ombudsman’s
office, police killings in the state numbered 703 by October, matching
the total for the whole of 2001. Of these killings, 652 were registered
as "resistance followed by death", 138 of which were attributed
to off-duty police officers.

In
Rio de Janeiro 656 killings by the police had been registered by September,
already outstripping the previous year’s total of 592. "Death squads"
reportedly continued to act with impunity in certain states, with the
participation or collusion of members of the police.

On
5 March, over 100 members of São Paulo’s military police killed
12 suspected criminal gang members traveling in a bus near the town
of Sorocaba, in an alleged shoot-out. Independent forensic examinations
of the victims suggested that many had been extra judicially executed.
However, formal investigations were reportedly hampered as the crime
scene was interfered with and the bodies removed by the police.

São
Paulo’s Bar Association and the city’s Vice-Mayor said they had evidence
indicating that the incident was part of a wider scheme set up by a
special intelligence unit within the military police, known as GRADI,
originally created to investigate hate crimes. According to this evidence,
the scheme included the torture of detainees and illegally forcing them
to infiltrate criminal gangs with the aim of executing members.

Similar
incidents, involving 15 other killings, were being investigated by the
state’s Public Prosecutor’s Office. São Paulo’s governor praised
police who participated in the killings, using film footage of the destroyed
bus during his election campaign.

Human
rights defenders

Human
rights defenders across the country continued to suffer attacks, threats,
intimidation and killings as a result of their work, especially when
denouncing organized crime, corruption and impunity. Some public figures
and elements within the media made concerted efforts to undermine the
work of human rights defenders by dismissing them as "defenders
of criminals".

In
Espírito Santo state, human rights defenders faced growing threats.
Several federal investigations had previously implicated the police
organization Scuderie Detetive le Cocq (SDLC) in extrajudicial executions,
killings of human rights defenders, corruption and organized crime.
The SDLC, which appears to have a paramilitary structure, reportedly
had links with powerful economic and political groups in the state,
including members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches
of power.

In
April a lawyer was killed just before he was due to reveal evidence
on political corruption in the state to the police. His death led human
rights activists to call on the federal government to intervene in the
state to end the many years of impunity. Although the Human Rights Council
of the Ministry of Justice recommended intervention by the federal government,
the request was stalled when the federal Attorney General withdrew his
support following a meeting with the President. This led the Minister
of Justice to resign.

Following
calls from both the national and international human rights community,
the government set up a "special mission", comprising federal
public prosecutors and federal police, to investigate allegations of
organized crime, extrajudicial executions, torture and threats to human
rights defenders in Espírito Santo. However, members of the local
human rights movement continued to be at risk. An incendiary device
was detonated in the offices of the Bar Association in June, and one
of the principal suspects, who was collaborating with the investigations,
was killed in November while in the custody of the federal police.

Torture
and ill-treatment

Torture
and ill-treatment continued to be used by elements within all Brazil’s
police forces as a means of investigation and to extract confessions.
Understaffed and poorly trained prison guards, often working in dangerous
situations, used torture and violence to humiliate and control detainees.
Torture was also used to extort money and serve the criminal interests
of corrupt officials. Although the federal government launched a campaign
to combat torture in 2001, prosecution figures under the 1997 torture
law continued to be extremely low given the endemic practice of the
crime.

The
São Paulo non-governmental organization (NGO) Ação
dos Cristãos pela Abolição da Tortura (ACAT), Christian
Action for the Abolition of Torture, presented a report to the São
Paulo state authorities citing 1,631 of the 5,000 cases of torture it
had recorded between June 2000 and June 2002. According to figures given
to the NGO Global Justice, the São Paulo state Public Prosecutor’s
Office had initiated only 30 prosecutions under the torture law since
1997.

Detainees
held in São Paulo’s FEBEM juvenile detention system continued
to suffer torture and ill-treatment on a systematic basis. Members of
the Children and Adolescents department of the Public Prosecutor’s Office
consistently denounced torture and ill-treatment of juveniles, especially
at the Franco da Rocha unit. Prosecutors uncovered bars, chair legs
and batons reportedly used to beat detainees. Many complaints were accompanied
by photographs of juvenile detainees showing injuries. Efforts to prevent
prosecutors from monitoring the system culminated in November with guards
threatening to strike in an attempt to stop inspection visits.

Conditions
of detention in most police stations, prisons and pre-trial and juvenile
detention centers continued to cause concern. Extreme overcrowding,
minimal provisions for basic health and sanitation needs, poor structural
conditions, and no provisions for work or education meant that the majority
of detainees were held in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions. Many
cases of deaths in custody were recorded, caused either by excessive
force used by police or guards or by inter-prisoner violence perpetuated
by the negligence or acquiescence of prison authorities. Torture and
ill-treatment were consistently used as methods of control and punishment.

In
an attempt to control gang violence in prisons, the São Paulo
state and federal authorities introduced the Differentiated Disciplinary
Regime, which allows prison directors to transfer dangerous prisoners
to solitary confinement in high-security prisons for up to a year, with
no prior approval necessary from a judge. The move was criticized as
unconstitutional by members of São Paulo’s Bar Association.

On
31 December 2001, a judicial order was issued to transfer prisoners
randomly between Urso Branco, the main prison in Rondônia state,
and the holding cells used for inmates deemed to be at risk from others.
The following day, after the order was implemented, there was a massacre
of 27 inmates by other prisoners in the main prison. Military police
and prison guards, who could hear the screams of those being killed,
refused to enter the prison to intervene.

Ten
other detainees were killed by guards and other prisoners later in the
year. During a visit to the prison in April, Amnesty International found
that it suffered from a sub-standard structure, severe overcrowding,
no segregation by category, and minimum health provisions. Heavily armed
military police were guarding detainees, contrary to national law, and
were reportedly maintaining control through extensive use of torture
and ill-treatment. The case of Urso Branco was one of the first for
which Brazil was taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,
yet few if any of the provisional measures ordered by the Court had
been effectively implemented.

On
15 September the Carandiru prison complex, which held around 7,000 detainees
in appalling conditions, was closed. The closure was largely welcomed
by human rights groups, although subsequent transfers of detainees led
to overcrowding in many other prisons in the state. Carandiru became
infamous as a result of a 1992 massacre, where members of the military
police killed 111 unarmed detainees following a riot.

The
trial of the military police accused of participating in the massacre
was again delayed as Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães of the military
police, awaiting an appeal hearing on his sentence of 632 years for
heading the operation, was elected state deputy in October, giving him
parliamentary immunity. No date was set for the trials of 115 military
police officers also involved in the massacre.

Violence
against land activists and indigenous peoples

In
the course of land disputes, land activists suffered harassment and
attacks at the hands of military police responsible for carrying out
evictions, as well as killings by hired gunmen often acting with the
apparent acquiescence of the police and local authorities. The Pastoral
Land Commission documented 38 killings of land activists during the
year, a rise of 31 per cent on 2001.

At
least 10 killings of rural workers and trade unionists were reported
in Pará state alone. Land reform activists continued to be held
under preventive detention orders and to have politically motivated
criminal charges brought against them. In many cases charges appeared
to be prompted solely by non-violent activities in favor of land reform.

Almir
Muniz da Silva, a farm worker, was last seen on 29 July when walking
down a small country path in the municipality of Itabaiana, Paraíba
state. Investigations failed to uncover his whereabouts. Almir da Silva
had testified before the state Parliamentary Commission of Investigation
into Rural Violence and the Formation of Private Militias in the state
of Paraíba. He had named a policeman as the principal person
responsible for violence against rural workers in the region. Almir
da Silva’s name was reportedly one of 10 on a death list compiled by
police and local landowners. Four others on the list reportedly survived
attempts on their life.

In
June, after many years and numerous legal hindrances, the retrial of
the military police officers charged with responsibility for the 1996
massacre of 19 land activists in Eldorado dos Carajás, Pará
state, took place. Representatives of the Landless Workers Movement
(MST) boycotted the trial, stating that the proceedings were neither
fair nor independent. Other NGOs assisting the prosecution withdrew
following the decision to try 127 soldiers in one session. Of those
charged, only Colonel Mario Pantoja and Major José Maria Oliveira
were convicted for their part in leading the police operation. They
remained free pending an appeal. All other defendants, including one
major, one captain, four lieutenants, 11 sergeants and 127 soldiers
of the Pará Military Police, were found not guilty.

Amnesty
International, as well as victims’ families and local NGOs, saw the
convictions as little more than symbolic, given the inability of the
police investigation and the judicial process to identify those with
individual criminal responsibility for the shooting and hacking to death
of the 19 land activists. Appeals were lodged against the court’s rulings.

Indigenous
peoples around the country also suffered threats, attacks and killings
mainly as a consequence of their struggle for land. They suffered further
violations of their rights, including reported sexual harassment, as
a result of military bases being set up on indigenous lands. Concerns
were raised that Decree No. 4412, which regulates the armed forces’
presence on indigenous lands, fails to provide necessary protection
for indigenous peoples.

On
15 September, armed gunmen entered the Pataxó indigenous community
in Pequi village, Bahia state, shooting randomly. Thirty families fled
the village as their houses were destroyed. Many suffered physical violence.
Following the violent eviction six members of the Pataxó community
were arrested. All were subsequently released, one bearing visible signs
of torture.

Members
of the community believed that a local landowner was responsible for
the violence and that members of the civil and military police were
involved. At the end of the year the families had still not been able
to return to their land and their condition was extremely precarious.
Members of the Pataxó community have consistently suffered attacks
and violence since their land was demarcated in 1988.

 

Source:
Amnesty International Report, May 2003. Go to their website at www.amnesty.org 

 

 

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