Human Rights Developments

On June 12, Sandro do Nascimento, a former street child and survivor of the 1993 Candelária massacre of eight youths by Rio de Janeiro police, boarded a Rio city bus intending to rob its passengers. Informed of the hold up, police blocked off a street and surrounded the bus while Nascimento held the passengers hostage for several hours, and television crews assembled and began broadcasting the siege on national television. After more than four hours, Nascimento exited the bus, pointing a gun at the head of the hostage, Geisa Gonçalves. Before negotiations could move forward, a police officer fired at Nascimento but struck the hostage. Nascimento then fired three shots, killing the hostage before police overpowered him and took him away. An hour later, they left Nascimento's lifeless body at a local hospital. During the ride there, autopsy reports later confirmed, the officers had strangled him to death.

The incident was an emblematic one, typifying the problems of urban violence and police abuse in Brazil. It involved a social outcast, abandoned by society, a brutal incident terrorizing not only those directly affected but also millions of observers appalled by the brazenness of the criminal attack, an incompetent police response and, in the end, two cold-blooded murders. Despite the gruesome and unjustified police response – a flagrant violation of basic rights – reaction to the event focused almost entirely on the initial crime and the police failure to protect the hostage, rather than the assailant's killing. However, the public prosecutor's office indicted the five officers involved on homicide charges after they had served thirty days in pretrial detention. Unsurprisingly, the massive public outcry that followed the incident led to the approval of a national public security package loaded with crime-fighting measures but conspicuously lacking in reforms to control police abuse or professionalize the security forces.

Throughout the year, Brazilian authorities, media and the public viewed a range of human rights abuses – including police killings, torture, and problems in prisons and juvenile detention centers – through the lens of public security. Urban residents felt themselves to be most vulnerable to crime, but even rural conflicts, particularly those involving the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST), were seen as public security issues. Indeed, the federal government seized the opportunity presented by a series of high-profile MST building occupations to try to portray the issue of rural poverty and underdevelopment as one of law and order.

The most visible example of police violence in response to social protest came during celebrations of the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers to Brazil in 1500. During the ceremonies to mark the 500-year anniversary of this event, military police in Bahia state beat demonstrators and fired rubber bullets into crowds, injuring at least thirty demonstrators and arresting more than one hundred. The police decision to impede a march organized by 2,000 indigenous leaders from throughout Brazil, and the violence employed by shock troops against indigenous activists, led the president of the government's indigenous institute, FUNAI, to resign in protest.

This incident was the most widely publicized case of police violence against protesters, but it was not the most serious in outcome. At two other protests, military police shot and killed unarmed landless demonstrators. On May 2, police prevented buses carrying hundreds of landless workers from entering Curitiba, capital of Paraná state. Officers beat protesters, hurled tear gas canisters and fired rubber bullets into the crowd. Nearly 200 protesters were injured, and police shot Antônio Tavares Pereira, age thirty-eight, in the chest with a live bullet, killing him. On July 25, police fired into a group of landless demonstrators, killing José Marlúcio da Silva, age forty-seven, in Recife, capital of Pernambuco state.

Police violence continued to stand out as Brazil's major human rights problem in other contexts as well. In São Paulo state, police killings of civilians surged from 525 in 1998 to 664 in 1999, the highest total since 1992, when police killed 111 inmates in a massacre at Carandiru prison. This violent trend intensified over the first six months of 2000, as police in the nation's most populous state killed 489 civilians, an increase of 77.2 percent over the comparable 1999 figure. A study released in July by the police ombudsman shed light on these shockingly high figures. Analyzing the autopsy reports of 222 persons killed by police gunfire in 1999 – one-third of the victims of fatal police actions – it reported that 51 percent had been shot in the back and 23 percent had been shot five or more times. The findings suggested that many had been summarily executed, and not killed as a result of legitimate use of lethal force in shootouts, as authorities routinely reported. More than half of the victims had no prior criminal record.

In Rio de Janeiro, efforts to improve the human rights record of the police suffered a serious setback when Gov. Anthony Garotinho drove noted reformer Luis Eduardo Soares, the assistant secretary of public security, from office in March. Governor Garotinho insisted that Soares' removal was legitimate, but the circumstances suggested that he was removed due to pressure from the Rio police, with whose corrupt and violent elements he had been coming increasingly into conflict. Several other reformers in the Garotinho government, including Police Ombudsperson Julita Lemgruber, resigned in protest at Soares' removal.

On June 28, a group of Rio de Janeiro police officers, acting without an arrest warrant or probable cause, seized Anderson Carlos Crispiniano from his home in the Morro do Adeus favela (shantytown) and took him to a local police station. According to press reports of the incident, and statements by Crispiniano's family to the Brazilian NGO Global Justice, the officers beat the young man severely, tore out his toenails on one foot, and threatened to plant narcotics on him and charge him with drug trafficking unless he convinced his family to pay a ransom in excess of U.S. $2,000. After more than twelve hours, the police, through an intermediary, released Crispiniano in exchange for the sum demanded. Three weeks later, Crispiniano died from his injuries. The Crispiniano case attracted significant attention in the local media, as well as the concern of the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, both before and during his August-September visit to Brazil. Nonetheless, at this writing, the internal police investigation into the case was at a standstill.

Accountability for police crimes remained elusive. After the August conviction of two low-ranking police officers – Daniel da Silva Furtado, sentenced to sixteen years in prison for two homicides, and Airton Ramos Morais, sentenced to eighteen years for three homicides – for the massacre of landless squatters in Corumbiara, Rondônia state, prosecutors overtly politicized the proceedings. The trial was based on events that occurred on August 9, 1995 when, in the early morning, heavily armed police entered the Santa Elina fazenda (large commercial farm) in Corumbiara to forcibly evict squatters, who resisted them. In the initial skirmish, two police and several of the squatters were killed. After the situation had been brought under control, the police tortured and humiliated the survivors, killing several more of them and arresting a landless worker whose corpse surfaced days later in a nearby river.

In the course of one of the trials, in which the prosecution itself requested the acquittal of two officers (permitted under Brazilian law) who oversaw the operation, state attorney Tarciso Leite de Mattos referred to the landless as "Nazis" and told the jury that "Either Brazil does away with the landless movement, or they will do away with Brazil." After three weeks of proceedings, the jury convicted two landless leaders for their role in the conflict, and the court sentenced Cícero Pereira Leite Neto to six years and two months in prison and Claudemir Gilberto Ramos to eight years and six months in prison. After the initial convictions of the two officers, the jury acquitted nine military police officers and convicted one ranking officer, Cpt. Vitório Régis Mena Mendes, who was sentenced to nineteen years in prison for three homicides.

In August, a Rio de Janeiro jury acquitted former police officers Hélio Vilário Guedes, Paulo Roberto Borges da Silva, William Moreno da Conceição and Hélio Gomes Lopes, who had been charged with homicide for their roles in the 1993 massacre of twenty-one residents of the Vigário Geral favela in Rio de Janeiro. The following month, the same jury convicted former military policeman José Fernandes Neto, and the court sentenced him to forty-five years in prison. In October, the court jury convicted Alexandre Bicego, another former military policeman, for the homicides; the court imposed a sentence of seventy-two years. The verdicts meant that more than seven years after the incident only six police officers had been convicted of the killings, significantly fewer than the thirty to fifty police involved in them. Nineteen police had been acquitted; six others awaited trial at this writing.

Led by the MST, the landless rural poor embarked on a national campaign of occupying farms and government buildings, part of a larger effort to force the authorities to accelerate the process of land reform. The federal government responded to these actions by creating a division within the federal police to investigate agrarian conflicts, and by expanding federal jurisdiction to cover occupations of municipal and state buildings, as well as federal institutions. These measures were criticized by rights groups, which contrasted the government's eagerness to expand federal competence to manage social movements with its continued failure to establish federal jurisdiction over human rights violations.

The MST's occupations frequently evoked a violent response. Although the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT) had not yet released data for the year 2000 at this writing, their figures showed that twenty-four people were killed in land disputes in 1999, down from 1998 figures but consistent with figures from recent years. Nonetheless, areas with high numbers of land occupations showed an increase in violence. Prominent among these was the southern state of Paraná. From 1997 to late June 2000, fifteen laborers were killed in Paraná and twenty more survived attempted homicides. Seven laborers were tortured by state police during 1999 and the first half of 2000. While eighteen were injured in police actions in 1999, this number soared to 232 in the first half of 2000. During the course of forced evictions in 1999, the police in Paraná arrested 173 people, mostly without probable cause, detaining them for extended periods in police lockups and jails; in the first six months of 2000, this figure rose to 141.

Detention conditions continued to violate international norms. The latest census figures – from August 1999 – showed that while Brazilian prisons had capacity for just over 107,000 inmates, 194,074 were confined. According to research by the U.N. Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders (ILANUD), the prison population surpassed 200,000 in 2000. Official figures indicated that from 1995 to 1999 the number of prisoners increased by 30.5 percent. In São Paulo, where the government raised capacity by more than 12,000 over the past several years through new prison construction, the inmate population reached 90,000 in September. The state prison system, however, had capacity for only 44,872, forcing the authorities to maintain 34,232 prisoners in jails and police lockups that were themselves designed to accommodate at most 17,635 short-term detainees. Not surprisingly, the miserable conditions of such places – characterized by overcrowding, abysmal sanitary facilities, no job training or educational infrastructure, and constant physical violence – sparked numerous inmate riots over the course of the year. Contributing to the ongoing prison crisis was the failure of judges to sentence eligible convicts to non-prison terms, in accordance with the provisions of law no. 9.714/98, passed in November 1998. While São Paulo's prisons administration secretary had 1,942 slots for non-prison sentences, only 650 were being used in late 2000.

Prisoners in such facilities were also frequently subject to extreme forms of violence at the hands of special police forces and guards. On June 2, after a disturbance at the Americana City Jail in São Paulo state, the special police made more than one hundred detainees strip and then run a gauntlet. Police in two parallel lines beat the semi-naked prisoners with whips, bats, iron bars, bottles, and other objects; afterwards, they poured vinegar and saltwater over the prisoners' open wounds. A week later, at the Fiftieth Police District, twelve police officers entered thelockup, forced detainees to strip to their underwear, and engaged in an abuse session that included severe beatings with bats and metal bars, and electric shocks. Police repeatedly beat detainee Nilson Saldanha on the head, injuring him so severely that he died ten days later.

Conditions of detention for juveniles remained well below international standards as well as the minimum guarantees set out in Brazil's progressive Children's and Adolescents' Statute (Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente). The tenth anniversary of the law was celebrated in the midst of a wave of flagrant abuses against youths held in the detention centers of the Foundation for the Well Being of Minors (Fundação pelo Bem Estar do Menor, FEBEM) in São Paulo. Over the course of 2000, rights groups documented numerous cases of mass beatings; on several occasions, public prosecutors entered FEBEM detention centers and also filmed the fresh wounds of dozens of detainees.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights organizations, neighborhood and community associations, religious groups and unions documented and denounced violations of human rights without formal legal impediment throughout the year. Nonetheless, several who demonstrated the courage to accuse officials responsible for abuses faced intimidation, including meritless law suits, harassment, threats, and even attempted murder. On September 5, a jeep carrying several members of the CPT in the northeastern state of Paraíba was struck by 12-gauge shotgun fire. Father João Maria Cauchí, the CPT's state coordinator, and sister Maria Ferreira da Costa were both injured but survived the attempt on their lives.

On two consecutive days in September, representatives of Amnesty International and a gay pride organization, both in São Paulo, received packages containing bombs through the ordinary mail. Police deactivated the bombs without injury. At the same time, Renato Simões and Ítalo Cardoso, the presidents of the human rights commissions of the São Paulo State Legislative Assembly and the City Council, respectively, received letters containing threats directed at themselves and others who defend human rights. At this writing, neither the state nor federal police had succeeded in identifying those responsible for the bombs and threats.

Other human rights defenders faced threats and unwarranted criminal and civil lawsuits. In February, Darcy Frigo, an attorney with the CPT in Paraná state, received death threats by phone, as did another CPT employee, Dionísio Vandresen, in June. Frigo also faced charges of resisting a judicial order in connection with a mass eviction operation on November 27, 1999, in Curitiba, Paraná, in which he was badly beaten by police. The incident took place before members of the local and national media and hundreds of onlookers, including the local Catholic bishop, Dom Ladislau Biernaski, a defense witness in the proceedings against Frigo. Authorities in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, indicted Human Rights Watch's former Brazil director James Cavallaro for the crime of defamation, initiating criminal proceedings against him. In previous court testimony and interviews with a local newspaper, Cavallaro had provided information regarding suspects in the 1996 murder of human rights lawyer Gilson Nogueira.

Human rights commissions of state, municipal, and federal legislative bodies, although governmental by definition, continued to demonstrate significant independence throughout the year, reviewing allegations of abuse, monitoring police, prisons and other state agents, and denouncing abuses to prosecutors and the media.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

Visits by key human rights officials demonstrated the U.N.'s commitment to promoting respect for basic rights in Brazil. In May, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited Brasília, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, reaching a working agreement with the government regarding technical assistance.

The second visit of a U.N. human rights official – a mission by the special rapporteur on torture in August and September – provided an important platform for groups investigating and denouncing this abuse to make themselves heard. In three weeks of intensive on-site research that took him to Brasília, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Belém, and Marabá, the special rapporteur, Sir Nigel Rodley, documented scores of cases of severe beatings and torture. At the end of his visit, he expressed deep concern over the state of the country's detention facilities, explaining that Brazilian prisoners were routinely subject to subhuman conditions and severe physical abuse. His full report – to be released during the 2001 session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission – was awaited with great anticipation.

Organization of American States

In June, for the second time in five years, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) visited Brazil. The previous visit – in December 1995 – led to a substantial report on the country's human rights situation. This visit, by several commission members, underscored the importance of the work of the OAS's primary human rights body on individual petitions. During its stay in São Paulo, the IACHR received dossiers from groups working on violations ranging from prison conditions and the situation in juvenile detention centers, to abuses in rural Brazil, racism, and women's rights.

In its annual report, released in June, the IACHR published its findings in three cases against Brazil, including one condemning the government's failure to prosecute the military police responsible for the massacre of 111 inmates in the Carandiru prison complex in October 1992. Brazilian rights groups made greater use of the petitions process during the year. Unfortunately, the Brazilian government failed to heed the IACHR's recommendations in cases already decided, failed to respect deadlines, and did not submit complete responses to some petitions.

United States

Over the year, the U.S. gave relatively little direct assistance to Brazil. For fiscal year 2000, Congress approved U.S. $1.5 million in counter-narcotics assistance; for fiscal year 2001, the administration requested $2 million for the same item. For fiscal year 2000, Congress approved $225,000 for Brazil through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. The administration requested $250,000 in IMET funding for fiscal year 2000.

The State Department's chapter on Brazil in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999 fairly portrayed the country's human rights situation.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.