Reforms in public security, though limited, signalled the authorities’ recognition of the long-term neglect of this area. However, law enforcement officers continued to use excessive force and to carry out extrajudicial executions and torture with impunity. The detention system was characterized by cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions in which torture was rife. Numerous law enforcement officials were charged with involvement in organized crime and death squads. Indigenous Peoples, landless workers and small rural communities continued to be threatened and attacked for defending their land rights. Human rights defenders and social activists were the targets of threats, politically motivated charges and attacks, despite the government’s national programme for the protection of human rights defenders.
Nearing the end of his term in office, President Lula’s government had helped enhance Brazil’s role on the world stage. Brazil’s policy of building a “southern” alliance to challenge long-standing “northern” power structures contributed to changes in global politics. However, at times this was achieved at the cost of supporting a broader human rights agenda, not least at the UN Human Rights Council.
At home, it was widely acknowledged that social investment by President Lula’s government had helped reduce socio-economic inequalities.
In August, Brazil held its first ever national conference on public security in which civil society and law enforcement officers participated in developing government policy. In December, the government launched its third national human rights plan, which was largely welcomed by civil society. However, the plan faced staunch criticism from the military, the Catholic Church and the land lobby regarding, respectively, measures to tackle past human rights violations, sexual and reproductive rights and land rights. These posed serious threats to the protection of human rights in the country.
Impunity for past violations
One of the proposals of the national human rights plan was a promise to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate abuses under the country’s military government (1964-1985). Some NGOs and relatives of victims criticized the initial proposals as the commission’s remit did not appear to include the prosecution of past violators. However, even this limited proposal was strongly criticized by the Brazilian military, with the Minister of Defence attempting to further weaken it.
Nevertheless, increasing challenges were made to the long-standing impunity for crimes committed during the military era. In August, the Supreme Court ruled that Uruguayan national Colonel Manuel Cordero Piacentini could be extradited to Argentina to face charges in connection with the enforced disappearance of Uruguayan and Argentine citizens and torture in the context of Operation Condor, a joint plan by Southern Cone military governments in the 1970s and 1980s to eliminate opponents.
A submission, by the Brazilian Bar Association and a leading judicial expert, to the Supreme Court challenging the interpretation of the country’s Amnesty Law was pending at the end of the year.
Police and security forces
Across the country, there were persistent reports of excessive use of force, extrajudicial executions and torture by police officers. Residents of favelas (shanty towns) or poor communities, often under the control of armed criminal gangs, were subjected to military-style police incursions. Police in the front line were also placed at risk and many were killed in the line of duty.
Some states launched their own stand-alone public security projects, with mixed results. The Police Pacification Units in Rio de Janeiro and the Pact for Life in Pernambuco state both claimed to have reduced crime and brought greater security to socially excluded areas. The initiatives were welcomed by some sectors of society as offering an alternative to previous repressive and abusive policing methods, although some residents in areas where the projects were implemented complained of discrimination. Outside the scope of the projects, police forces continued to commit extensive violations.
The authorities continued to describe killings by police as “acts of resistance”, contrary to the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and to the third national human rights plan. Hundreds of killings were not properly investigated and little, if any, judicial action was taken. A study by the Public Security Institute attached to Rio de Janeiro’s state Secretariat of Public Security found that between January 1998 and September 2009, 10,216 people were killed in the state in incidents registered as “acts of resistance”. In Rio de Janeiro, police killed 1,048 people in reported “acts of resistance” during the year. In São Paulo the comparable figure was 543, an increase of 36 per cent over 2008, with killings by military police increasing by 41 per cent.
In São Paulo, the state government continued to adopt “saturation operations” in favelas. These operations involved military-style occupations of communities for a period of 90 days followed by police withdrawal. Members of the community of Paraisópolis, São Paulo, reported cases of torture, excessive use of force, intimidation, arbitrary and abusive searches, extortion and theft by police officers during a “saturation operation” in February.
In October, three police officers were killed in Rio de Janeiro when a police helicopter was shot down during a conflict between rival drug factions. Gang members began burning buses and driving residents from their homes in an attempt to distract police from their attack on a rival community, during which the helicopter had been downed. Police mounted a series of operations, described by a senior officer as “retaliation” during which more than 40 people were killed. These included a 24-year-old woman hit by a stray bullet as she held her 11-month-old baby, and a 15-year-old boy reportedly shot by police while putting out the rubbish.
Residents of the Acari and Maré favelas in Rio reported that violent police operations regularly coincided with children’s return from school, putting pupils at risk and forcing schools to close. Cases of torture, intimidation, illegal and arbitrary searches, extortion and theft were also reported. It was also alleged that in Maré police rented an armoured vehicle, known as a caveirão (big skull), to drug traffickers involved in a turf war.
The spread of militias – armed paramilitary-style groups made up largely by off-duty law-enforcement officials – was such that one academic study claimed they controlled more of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas than the drug factions. Using their power over communities for illicit economic and political gain, militias threatened the lives of thousands of residents and the very institutions of the state. Judges, prosecutors, police officers and a state deputy received repeated death threats from the militias. State authorities mounted a series of operations to combat the activities of the militias, leading to a number of arrests. However, the president of a parliamentary inquiry into the militias continued to criticize the failure of municipal and federal authorities to implement the inquiry’s recommendations for combating the rise of the militias.
Torture and prison conditions
Detainees continued to be held in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions. Torture was regularly used as a method of interrogation, punishment, control, humiliation and extortion. Overcrowding remained a serious problem. Gang control of detention centres resulted in high levels of violence between prisoners. Lack of independent oversight and high levels of corruption contributed to perpetuating entrenched problems of violence in the prison system, as well as in the juvenile detention system. Mechanisms for the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture had still not been put in place by the end of the year.
Some of the harshest conditions of detention continued to be reported from Espírito Santo state. There were reports of torture, as well as of extreme overcrowding and the use of shipping containers (known as “microwaves”) as cells. There were reports of prisoners dismembering other prisoners. Following extensive pressure from local human rights groups and official state and national monitoring bodies, some building projects were initiated. In March, an illegal ban on monitoring visits to the prison system was finally lifted.
In December, after evidence of torture and attempted homicide in the Urso Branco prison in the state of Rondônia, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a new resolution – its seventh since 2002 – calling on the Brazilian government to ensure the safety of the prisoners held there.
A decision on the Attorney-General’s call for federal intervention in October 2008 was still pending before the Supreme Court at the end of 2009.
Conflict over land continued to generate human rights abuses committed by both gunmen hired by farm owners and police officers. According to the Church-based Pastoral Land Commission, between January and mid-November 2009, 20 people were murdered in land-related conflicts in Brazil.
- In Rio Grande do Sul state, landless worker Elton Brum da Silva was shot dead by military police in August during an eviction from the Southall ranch in São Gabriel municipality. In the aftermath of the eviction, local NGOs accused police of torture – including beating with batons, kicks, punches and the use of Tasers.
- In August, 50 military police evicted a group of landless workers from the Pôr do Sol farm in Maranhão state, beating up several landless leaders and threatening others verbally. They set fire to houses and destroyed personal belongings, including documents.
- In October, 20 armed, hooded men reportedly led by a local farmer attacked a settlement of 20 families in the municipality of São Mateus, in Maranhão state. Threats from gunmen to kill any families settled in the area continued following the attack.
Workers’ rights, especially in the agricultural sector, continued to be violated. Despite extensive efforts to combat the practice, thousands of workers were found to be held in conditions deemed analogous to slavery under national law.
In November, in a landmark ruling, a federal judge in Pará state sentenced 27 people to prison sentences ranging from three years and four months to 10 years and six months for using slave labour. The prosecutions followed reports issued between 1999 and 2008 by labour prosecutors, responsible for monitoring the implementation of labour law.
In June, the government presented the National Accord for the Improvement of Working Conditions in the Sugar Sector – a voluntary agreement between the government, industry and unions for minimum standards. The Accord followed persistent criticisms of workers’ rights violations in the sugar cane industry.
Right to adequate housing
Urban homeless groups suffered threats, attacks and excessive use of force at the hands of the police. In São Paulo a series of forced evictions suggested that a policy of slum clearance to make way for development projects was being pursued without regard for the rights of those made homeless as a consequence.
- On 18 June, riot police in São Paulo charged at a group of 200 families living by the side of the road who had been evicted on 16 June from abandoned government offices. Police used pepper spray, tear gas and batons against the residents who set up burning roadblocks. According to the Homeless Movement of Central São Paulo (Movimento dos Sem Teto do Centro, MSTC), five homeless people were injured, including a child.
- In August, riot police used rubber bullets, tear gas and helicopters during evictions at the Olga Benário community in Capão Redondo in the south of São Paulo. Some 500 families were left homeless in extremely precarious conditions. In December, after national and international protest, the São Paulo state authorities agreed to repossess the land for social housing.
Plan for Accelerated Growth
The government and some economic analysts credited the Plan for Accelerated Growth (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento, PAC) with ensuring the country’s economic stability. However, there were reports that some of the projects threatened the human rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples. The projects, which included the building of dams, roads and ports, were sometimes accompanied by forced evictions, loss of livelihoods and threats and attacks against protesters and human rights defenders.
- In August, community leaders Father Orlando Gonçalves Barbosa, Isaque Dantas de Souza and Pedro Hamilton Prado received a series of death threats. The three were put under surveillance by unidentified men and armed men forced their way into Father Barbosa’s house. This followed their campaign to stop the building of a port at Encontro das Águas, Manaus, Amazon state, an environmentally sensitive area and home to fishing communities. The development of the port was being funded under the PAC. On 2 September, Father Barbosa was forced to leave Manaus for his own safety.
Indigenous Peoples’ rights
In March, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the legality of the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation in Roraima state. The ruling was seen as a victory for the Indigenous movement, but also contained a number of conditions that weakened future claims.
Mato Grosso do Sul continued to be the focus of grave human rights abuses against Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. The state government and the powerful farm lobby used the courts to block the identification of Indigenous lands. Guarani-Kaiowá communities were attacked by security guards and gunmen hired by local farmers. Local NGOs called for federal intervention to ensure the security of the Indigenous Peoples and the demarcation of their lands.
- In October, members of the Apyka’y Guarani-Kaiowá community, who had been evicted from traditional lands in April and were living in extremely precarious conditions by the side of a highway near Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul, were attacked in the middle of the night by armed security guards employed by local landowers. Their homes were burned and one man was shot in the leg.
- In November, two Indigenous teachers, Genivaldo Vera and Rolindo Vera, went missing after the forced eviction of the Pirajuí Guarani-Kaiowá community from traditional lands on 30 October by a group of armed men. The body of Genivaldo Vera was subsequently found in a stream, bearing injuries consistent with torture. Rolindo Vera remained missing, feared dead at the end of the year.
In December, President Lula decreed the “homologation” (the final step in the demarcation process) of nine Indigenous lands in Roraima, Amazonas, Pará and Mato Grosso do Sul states. One week after the announcement, the Supreme Court upheld an appeal lodged by local farmers, suspending the presidential decree in relation to the Guarani-Kaiowá Arroio-Korá reservation in Mato Grosso do Sul. The Supreme Court’s decision was based in part on commentaries attached to the Raposa Serra do Sol ruling which requires land claims to be based on land occupancy in 1988, when the Constitution was promulgated.
Human rights defenders
The human rights defenders programme was introduced in two further states and was operational in a total of five states by the end of 2009. However, in many cases effective protection was not provided and defenders remained at grave risk because of the lack of political will to confront systemic human rights violations.
- In January, Manoel Mattos, Vice-President of the Workers’ Party in Pernambuco state and member of the local bar association’s human rights commission, was killed by two hooded men who broke into his home and shot him at point-blank range. He had long campaigned against the spread of death squads and police violence. Despite repeated death threats, federal police had withdrawn the protection he was receiving at the end of 2007.
Amnesty International visits
- Amnesty International delegates visited Brazil in May and December.