Covering events from January - December 2002

Head of state and government: Fernando Henríque Cardoso
Death penalty: abolitionist for ordinary crimes
International Criminal Court: ratified

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 centres. 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.


President Fernando Henríque Cardoso's eight years and maximum of two terms in office came to an end. 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 was due to take office in January 2003. Gubernatorial and congressional elections also took place

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 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 travelling in a bus near the town of Sorocaba, in an alleged shoot-out. Independent forensic examinations of the victims suggested that many had been extrajudicially 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 and deaths in custody

Conditions of detention in most police stations, prisons and pre-trial and juvenile detention centres 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, AI 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 favour 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. AI, 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. Further legislation for the protection of indigenous rights remained pending: the Indigenous People's Statute was awaiting congressional approval; and Convention No. 169, the Indigenous and Tribal People's Convention, of the International Labour Organisation, was still awaiting presidential ratification, having passed through the Senate.
  • 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.
AI country visits

AI delegates visited six states in Brazil in April and met presidential candidates in September.

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