Brazilian society remained deeply divided in terms of the enjoyment of human rights. Economic expansion and government-supported social projects contributed to some reductions in socio-economic disparities. However, despite modest improvements in poverty reduction, inequality in the distribution of income and wealth remained one of the highest in the region and human rights violations affecting millions of people living in poverty remained largely unaddressed. The poorest communities continued to be denied access to services, to experience high levels of gang violence, and to suffer systemic human rights violations by the police.
Marginalized urban communities continued to live with the consequences of inadequate social protection, discriminatory urban development policies, and a lack of any public security provision. As a result many were trapped in favelas (shanty towns) or substandard housing where they were caught between criminal violence and abuses by the police.
In rural areas, landless workers and Indigenous Peoples were intimidated and threatened with violence and forced evictions. Agro-industrial expansion and government and private development projects reinforced decades of social discrimination and poverty in rural communities. The constitutional and human rights of these communities were regularly flouted, be it through a lack of access to justice and social services, or violence and intimidation at the hands of irregular private security companies in the defence of powerful economic interests.
Many of those defending the human rights of marginalized communities, including lawyers, union leaders and community activists, were criminalized by the authorities, and threatened by those whose interests they challenged.
Municipal elections were held in October throughout Brazil. The situation in Rio de Janeiro, where para-policing groups made up of off-duty or former police officers, firemen and soldiers (known as milícias) and drug gangs controlled large parts of the city, was considered so volatile that the army was deployed to safeguard candidates’ security. In November, floods devastated parts of Santa Catarina state, killing over 100 and leaving more than 30,000 homeless.
Corruption continued to undermine both the provision of public services and access to justice. In May, a federal police investigation exposed a scheme involving the siphoning off of public funds from the Brazilian Development Bank for services contracted by local councils in São Paulo, Rio, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte states. In December, in a separate corruption investigation in Espírito Santo state, federal police arrested the president of the State Supreme Court, along with judges, lawyers and a member of the prosecution service, for alleged involvement in the selling of judicial decisions.
"...illegal armed militias linked to landowners continued to attack landless workers."
Brazil’s long-standing record of impunity for crimes committed by the military regime (1964-1985) faced its first serious challenges. In July, Brazil’s Minister of Justice, Tarso Genro, reopened the debate by stating that torture was not a political crime and therefore not covered by the 1979 Amnesty Law. His statements were dismissed by the Minister of Defence and members of the armed forces. In October, the Brazilian Bar Association petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on this interpretation of the Amnesty Law.
In October, retired army Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, became the first person to be found guilty in a civil case of torture during the military government. Controversially, federal government lawyers announced they would defend Colonel Ustra and his co-defendant, former Colonel Audir dos Santos Maciel, in a separate civil case, brought by federal public prosecutors, on the grounds that the Amnesty Law should protect them from prosecution.
In the international arena, Brazil submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council’s new monitoring system, the Universal Periodic Review, in April. The federal government accepted the Council’s recommendations, which included the adoption of measures to reduce excessive use of force by the police, improve conditions in the prison system, and guarantee the security of human rights defenders. A proposal to bring Brazilian legislation into line with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was pending ratification in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies at the end of the year.
Rural violence and forced evictions
Violence against landless workers continued, often carried out by unregulated or insufficiently regulated private security companies hired by landowners or illegal militias. Forced evictions persisted, in many instances with complete disregard for due process of law. There were attempts to criminalize movements that support landless people in their efforts to secure land and agrarian reform.
In Rio Grande do Sul state, prosecutors and military police built up a dossier of numerous allegations against members of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST) in what the MST described as an attempt to curtail their activities and criminalize members. The dossier, which included allegations of MST links with international terrorist groups, was used to support legal appeals for evictions, a number of which were carried out by police with excessive force.
In Paraná state, illegal armed militias linked to landowners continued to attack landless workers.
- On 8 March, 15 gunmen invaded a settlement of 35 families in Terra Livre, Ortigueira, threatening children, beating men and women and burning their belongings. Seven of the gunmen were subsequently arrested. Three weeks later, two hooded men shot dead Terra Livre’s local MST leader, Eli Dallemore, in front of his wife and children.
- On 8 May, armed men invaded an encampment of 150 families near Cascavel with tractors, diggers and an armoured truck, firing shots and destroying crops, a school and a church. The armed men exchanged fire with the police before being subdued. Ten were arrested in connection with the attack.
Pará state continued to record the highest numbers of threats and killings of land activists; few if any perpetrators were brought to justice.
- In May, the retrial of Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura for the killing of environmental and land activist Sister Dorothy Stang in February 2005 ended in his acquittal and release. An earlier trial had ended in conviction and a 30-year prison sentence. The acquittal was widely condemned by, among others, President Lula and other government officials. The Public Prosecution Service lodged an appeal, which was continuing at the end of the year.
Indigenous Peoples’ rights
Indigenous Peoples fighting for their constitutional rights to ancestral lands continued to suffer killings, violence, intimidation, discrimination, forced evictions and other human rights violations, often pushing them into poverty. Delays in judicial decisions contributed to continuing violence against Indigenous Peoples. Following his visit to Brazil in August, the UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people criticized “the persistent discrimination underlying the formation of policies, delivery of services, and administration of justice” which “has at times infested parts of society to result in violence.”
In May, hooded men shot at and threw home-made incendiary bombs at a group of Indigenous people, in the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation in Roraima state, injuring 10 of them. The attacks were attributed to large-scale rice farmers who remained illegally on indigenous land signed off on by President Lula in 2005. Federal police efforts to evict the farmers remained suspended pending a controversial appeal by the state government to the Supreme Court on the legality of the demarcation process. Although in December eight out of 11 Supreme Court judges voted to maintain the original demarcation of the Reposa Serra do Sol, the final ruling was delayed until 2009 after one of the judges requested time for further consideration.
- In Pernambuco state, Truká Indigenous leader Mozeni Araújo de Sá was shot dead in a crowded street in the city of Cabrobó in August. He was a key witness in the killings of two other Truká people, shot during community festivities in June 2005. He was also running for office in local elections. The gunman was detained and awaiting trial at the end of the year.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders across the country continued to be threatened, intimidated and attacked.
- In Rio de Janeiro, João Tancredo, President of the Institute of Human Rights Defenders, survived an attempt on his life in January when his armoured car was hit by four bullets. He was returning from a meeting with residents of the favela Furquim Mendes, where he had heard allegations against a police officer known as “the predator”, accused of killing five people in the community.
Pará remained the state with the most defenders under threat. According to the State Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Pará, at least 50 defenders were at risk, with fewer than 10 receiving adequate protection.
Police and security forces
Brazil’s criminal justice system continued to be characterized by negligence, discrimination and corruption. Although there was some reported decline in overall homicide rates, poor communities in urban centres and small towns in the interior continued to register high rates of violent crime and homicide. Elements within the law enforcement and security forces were found to be involved in death squads, milícias or criminal activity.
There was limited progress in the government’s National Public Security and Citizenship Programme (Programa Nacional de Segurança Pública com Cidadania, PRONASCI) aimed at crime prevention and social inclusion in Brazil´s most violent urban centres, with few states putting forward projects appropriate for funding.
Rio de Janeiro
State authorities continued to promote hardline policing exemplified by large-scale operations, involving scores of police officers, armoured vehicles and helicopters in incursions into the city’s favelas. Six people were killed in an operation in the Jacarezinho and Mangueira favelas in January. In April, two operations, one in the Coréia and Vila Aliança favelas, the other in Vila Cruzeiro, left 20 people dead; at least seven residents were wounded by stray bullets. Another 10 people were killed in August during an operation in Duque de Caxias, in the Baixada Fluminense.
In June, parliament opened an inquiry into the role of milícias who were believed to control around 170 favelas. It followed the news that milícias controlling the Batan favela, in Rio de Janeiro’s west zone, had abducted and tortured three reporters from the newspaper O Dia and a favela resident. The inquiry uncovered a web of protection rackets, electoral malpractice, violence and corruption, extending into the heart of state institutions, with extensive links between corrupt police officers, milícias and state and municipal politicians. As a result of the inquiry several key milícia leaders were imprisoned, including a state deputy.
- In August, masked men believed to be linked to the milícia shot dead seven residents of the Barbante favela, including a local shopkeeper who had refused to pay the milícia “tax”.
Although overall homicide figures reportedly dropped, official statistics for killings by the military police in São Paulo state rose slightly during the period January to September 2008 to 353, compared with 325 over the same period in 2007. At the same time there were numerous reports of multiple homicides. Death squads with links to the police continued to operate in the periphery of São Paulo city.
- Between April and October, five decapitated corpses were found dumped in Itapecerica da Serra. Civil police were investigating the possible involvement of a death squad known as “The Highlanders”, allegedly made up of 10 military police officers.
In his report on his visit to Brazil in November 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions stated that “the public prosecution service in Pernambuco estimated that approximately 70% of the homicides in Pernambuco are committed by death squads,” and that according to a federal parliamentary commission of inquiry “80% of the crimes caused by extermination groups involve police or ex-police.”
In Macéio, Alagoas state, communities were left at the mercy of drug gangs.
- In Benedito Bentes, a poor suburb in Macéio, community leaders and the mayor elect were repeatedly threatened by local drug gangs. In November, traffickers ordered a curfew, including the closure of the local school and the residents’ association, after a shoot-out in which two people were killed and six wounded.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Despite several government initiatives, including the recent ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, torture by law enforcement officials was still common at the point of arrest, during interrogation and in detention. Reporting, investigation and prosecution of such cases under the 1997 Torture Law were rare.
- In Piauí state, two military police officers from the 4th Battalion in the city of Picos were accused of torturing two young men whom they had arrested in October on suspicion of theft. The men were beaten about the genitals and back. A medical examination revealed gross swelling of the testicles and extensive bruising. At the end of the year, two military police were on trial, and the commander of the battalion was removed from his post pending the outcome of investigations.
Many detention centres were dominated internally by criminal gangs, and detainees were frequently tortured, ill-treated and sometimes killed by guards or other detainees. Some states continued to adopt a system of extended solitary confinement in high security prisons, in contravention of international standards.
- In September, three prisoners were found stabbed to death in the Paulo Sarasate detention centre, in Fortaleza, Ceará state. A further two were burned alive in their cell in November. This brought the total of prisoner killings in the detention centre in 2008 to 18. The authorities attributed these to gang conflicts within the prison.
In a landmark decision the Attorney General forwarded a petition to the Federal Supreme Court calling for federal intervention in Rondônia state to prevent systematic violations committed in the José Mário Alves prison, known as Urso Branco. The request came after eight years of reports – by national and local NGOs, Global Justice and The Peace and Justice Commission – of violations including summary executions and torture.
There were continuing reports of ill-treatment and abuses in the juvenile detention system.
- In July, in São Paulo’s Fundação CASA detention system (Centro de Atendimento Socioeducativo ao Adolescente) detainees in the Complexo de Franco da Rocha alleged that in the aftermath of a riot, they were locked in their cells and beaten with batons, bits of wood studded with nails, iron bars and the shaft of a hoe.
- In November in Rio de Janeiro’s DEGASE detention system (Departamento Geral de Ações Socioeducativas), a 17-year-old boy died of head injuries sustained in the Educandário Santo Expedito detention centre in Bangu. Witesses reported that the boy had been beaten by guards. A police inquiry was launched.
Women continued to experience violence and abuse. Survivors living in poor communities were not provided with basic services and had limited access to justice. Their contacts with the criminal justice system frequently resulted in ill-treatment and intimidation.
Women in communities dominated by criminal gangs or milícias faced abuse with little prospect of redress.
- In August, a study on milícias by the State University of Rio de Janeiro reported on the treatment of a woman accused of infidelity in Bangu, a miIícia-dominated community: she was stripped in front of her house, her head was shaved and she was forced to walk naked through the favela.
The number of women in prison continued to increase. Figures released by Depen, the National Prisons Department, showed an increase of 77 per cent in the women’s prison population over the previous eight years – a higher rate of increase than for men. Women detained continued to face ill-treatment, overcrowding, inadequate support during childbirth and lack of childcare provision.