UN rights expert calls for overhaul of Brazilian criminal justice system

15 November 2007

Brazil’s police engage frequently in extrajudicial executions and many moonlight in death squads or militias involved in racketeering, an independent United Nations human rights expert said today, calling for wholesale reform of the country’s culture of policing.

Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a statement detailing his preliminary observations after conducting an 11-day visit to Brazil that its prisons are also severely overcrowded, leading to riots and numerous killings by both guards and inmates.

While Brazil’s authorities, especially in its biggest cities, face enormous pressure in protecting citizens from the threats of gang violence, drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime, he said the criminal justice system must be overhauled to stop the routine abuse of human rights.

“The people of Brazil did not struggle valiantly against 20 years of dictatorship, nor did they adopt a federal constitution dedicated to restoring respect for human rights, only in order to make Brazil free for police officers to kill with impunity in the name of security,” Mr. Alston concluded.

The criminal justice system is not “hopelessly broken,” he said, with many competent personnel working in its various institutions, but there remain too many “disaster areas” in which lawlessness and criminality prevail.

“It is imperative that the federal and state governments implement sustained reforms in the directions I have indicated in order to enhance the security of ordinary citizens and promote respect for human rights.”

Homicide is the leading cause of death for Brazilians aged between 15 and 44, and the victims are overwhelmingly likely to be young, male, black and poor, Mr. Alston said. Yet in the country’s largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, only about 10 per cent of these crimes are tried in courts.

Mr. Alston noted that in Rio de Janeiro this year the police have recorded 694 “acts of resistance followed by death,” which he labelled “very often a euphemism for extrajudicial executions by the police” involving disproportionate or unnecessary force. “It is a category which virtually ensures that impunity will follow,” he added.

The Special Rapporteur also observed that in one of the states he visited “a reliable estimate is that 70 per cent of all homicides are committed by death squads, and many of those death squads are made up of policemen and former policemen.”

These death squads or related militias often violently enforce their own protection rackets against local shopkeepers, transport operators and others and kill anyone they suspect of corroborating with gangs.

“For residents of these communities, control by a ‘militia’ is nearly indistinguishable from control by gangs and traffickers,” Mr. Alston said.

Prisons, meanwhile, are so overcrowded that they have three times the number of inmates than they are designed to hold, promoting an atmosphere in riots are commonplace and weapons are easily brought into the jails.

“Wardens are insufficiently trained and supervised. Low levels of education and work opportunities also contribute to unrest, as does the failure to ensure that inmates are transferred from closed to open prisons when they are entitled to do so.”

Some states, such as Rio de Janeiro, force new prisoners to choose a gang faction when arriving in jail – a system which Mr. Alston said is “cruel and needlessly swells the size of the gangs.”

The Special Rapporteur offered a series of preliminary recommendations ahead of the release of his final report on the visit, which he expects to complete by March next year.

They include: more effective investigations of every police killing to determine if they are justified or should be tried as homicides; higher police salaries to reduce the desire of officers to moonlight in militias and death squads or take part in corruption; greater protection for witnesses to extrajudicial killings by the police and organized crime; increased independence and resources for police ombudsmen and prison monitors; and ensuring that prisons are controlled by the wardens and not by inmates.