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Brazil 2016/2017

Police continued to use unnecessary and excessive force, particularly in the context of protests. Young people and black men, mainly those living in favelas and other marginalized communities, were disproportionately targeted with violence by law enforcement officials. Human rights defenders, especially those defending land and environmental rights, faced increased threats and attacks. Violence against women and girls remained widespread. Human rights violations and discrimination against refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants intensified.

Background

On 31 August, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached after a long process in Congress, after which Vice-President Michel Temer took office. The new government announced several measures and proposals with the potential to impact human rights, including a constitutional amendment (PEC 241/55) capping government expenses over the next 20 years that could negatively affect investments in education, health and other areas. The amendment was approved in the House of Representatives and the Senate and was heavily criticized by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

In Congress, several proposals that would impinge on the rights of women, Indigenous Peoples, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals were pending discussion. In September a special commission in the House of Representatives approved changes to family law to define family as the union between a man and a woman.

Brazil had not yet ratified the Arms Trade Treaty nor signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Brazil played a significant role in ongoing negotiations for a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons, to be finalized in 2017.

In December, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicted the Brazilian state for tolerating slave labour and trafficking of people, based on conditions of farm workers in the northern state of Pará.

Public security

Homicides and gun violence remained high throughout the country, with estimates putting the number of victims of homicides in 2015 at over 58,000. The authorities failed to propose a plan to address the situation.

On 29 January, 10 people were killed and 15 wounded by gunmen in the city of Londrina, Paraná state. Six of the seven people detained during the investigation into the incident were military police officers.  

In March, following her visit to Brazil, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues presented to the Human Rights Council her recommendations that both the military police and the automatic classification of killings by the police as “resistance followed by death” – which presumes that the police acted in self-defence and does not lead to any investigation – be abolished.  

In September the federal government authorized the deployment of armed forces in the state of Rio Grande do Norte to support the police after several days of attacks by criminal gangs on buses and public buildings. At least 85 people were detained for allegedly participating in the attacks.

On 18 November, seven men were shot dead in Imperatriz, Maranhão, after an off-duty military police officer had been targeted for attempted robbery and physical assault.

2016 Olympic Games

The authorities and organizers of the 2016 Olympic Games failed to implement necessary measures to prevent human rights violations by security forces before and during the sporting event.1 This led to a repetition of violations witnessed during other major sporting events hosted in the city of Rio de Janeiro, namely the Pan American Games in 2007 and the FIFA World Cup in 2014.

Tens of thousands of military and security officers were deployed around Rio de Janeiro. The number of people killed by the police in the city of Rio de Janeiro in the immediate run-up to the games between April and June increased by 103% compared to the same period in 2015.

During the Olympic Games (5-21 August), police operations intensified in specific areas of Rio de Janeiro, including the favelas of Acari, Cidade de Deus, Borel, Manguinhos, Alemão, Maré, Del Castilho and Cantagalo. Residents reported hours of intensive shootings and human rights abuses including unlawful searches of homes, threats and physical assaults. The police admitted to killing at least 12 people during the Games in the city of Rio de Janeiro and to engaging in 217 shootings during police operations in the state of Rio de Janeiro.2

During the Olympic torch relay throughout the country, peaceful protests in Angra dos Reis and Duque de Caxias – both in Rio de Janeiro state – were met with unnecessary and excessive use of force by the police. Rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas were used indiscriminately against peaceful protesters and passers-by, including children.

On 10 May, the so-called “General Law of the Olympics” (13.284/2016) was signed by President Rousseff, amid concerns that it might impose undue restrictions to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, contrary to international human rights standards. Under the provisions of the new law, dozens of people were expelled from sports facilities for wearing T-shirts with slogans, carrying flags, or other signs of protest during the first days of the Games. On 8 August, a federal court ruled against the prohibition of peaceful protests inside the Olympic facilities.

On 5 August, the day of the opening ceremony, a peaceful protest over the negative impacts of the Games took place near Maracanã stadium, Rio de Janeiro, and was repressed with unnecessary force by the police, who used tear gas to disperse protesters in a square where children were playing. Most police officers policing the protest were not properly identified as such.

On 12 August, also near Maracanã stadium, a protest led mainly by students was severely repressed by the military police, who used unnecessary and excessive force. Around 50 protesters, mostly under the age of 18, were detained and one was injured. At the end of the year some of the detainees were being investigated under the Fan Defence Statute, which makes it a crime to disturb order or provoke violence within a 5km radius of a sports facility.

Unlawful killings

Killings by the police remained high and increased in some states. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, 811 people were killed by the police between January and November. There were reports of several police operations which resulted in killings, most of them in favelas. A few measures were adopted to curb police violence in Rio de Janeiro but had yet to produce an impact. Following a resolution from the National Council of Public Prosecution, on 5 January the Public Prosecution Office of Rio de Janeiro state created a working group to oversee police activities and the investigation of killings committed by the police. The Civil Police announced that the investigations of all cases of killings by the police would be progressively transferred to the specialized homicide division.

Most cases of killings by the police remained unpunished. Twenty years after the unlawful killing of a two-year-old during a military police operation in 1996 in the favela of Acari, Rio de Janeiro city, no one had been held to account. On 15 April the statute of limitations for the crime expired. In October the first public hearing with regard to the killings of 26 people during police operations in the favela Nova Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro city, in October 1994 and May 1995 was held before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The killings had yet to be investigated and nobody had been brought to justice.

In July the Attorney General requested that the investigation into the killing of 12 people by the police in February 2015 in Cabula, Bahia state, be transferred to a federal authority.

On 6 November, five men, who had disappeared on 21 October after being approached by law enforcement officials, were found dead in Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo. The bodies showed signs of executions and initial investigations by authorities indicated the involvement of municipal guards.

On 17 November, four young men were shot dead by the military police unit ROTA in Jabaquara, São Paulo.

Enforced disappearances

On 1 February, 12 military police officers were found guilty and sentenced for the crimes of torture followed by death, procedural fraud and “occultation of a corpse” in the case of the enforced disappearance of Amarildo de Souza in Rio de Janeiro.

In April, police investigations named 23 military police officers as suspects in the enforced disappearance of 16-year-old Davi Fiuza in the city of Salvador, Bahia state, in October 2014. However, the case failed to reach the Public Prosecutor’s Office and none of the accused had faced trial by the end of 2016.

Prison conditions

Prisons remained severely overcrowded, with reports of torture and other ill-treatment. According to the Ministry of Justice, by the end of 2015 the prison system had a population of more than 620,000, although the overall capacity was around 370,000 people.

Prison riots took place throughout the country. In October, 10 men were beheaded or burned alive in a prison in Roraima state and eight men died of asphyxiation in a cell during a prison fire in Rondônia state.

On 8 March the UN Special Rapporteur on torture reported, among other things, poor living conditions and the regular occurrence of torture and other ill-treatment of inmates by police and prison guards in Brazil.

In September a court of appeals declared null a trial and sentences against 74 police officers for a massacre in Carandiru prison in 1992; 111 men had been killed by the police in the massacre.

Freedom of assembly

The year was marked by a number of largely peaceful protests throughout the country on issues such as the impeachment process, education reform, violence against women, negative impacts of the 2016 Olympic Games and reduction of public spending in health care and education. The police response was frequently violent, leading to excessive and unnecessary use of force.

Students peacefully occupied up to 1,000 public schools in the country to question the education reform and investment cuts proposed by the government. In June, police in the city of Rio de Janeiro used unnecessary and excessive force to break up a peaceful protest by students in the Secretary of Education headquarters.

The police used unnecessary force in several states to disperse demonstrations against the new government and the proposed constitutional amendment (PEC 241/55) that would restrict public spending. In São Paulo, a student lost the vision in her left eye after the police launched a stun grenade that exploded near her.

In January, Rafael Braga Vieira, a man who had been detained after a protest in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, was again detained on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking.

On 10 August a state court failed to acknowledge the state’s responsibility for the loss of vision in one eye of Sergio Silva after he was hit by a device shot by police during a 2013 protest in São Paulo. The court considered that, by being at the protest, he had implicitly accepted the risk of being injured by the police.

In March the Anti-terrorism Law (13.260/2016) was approved in Congress and sanctioned by the President. The law was widely criticized for its vague language and for leaving a margin for its arbitrary application in social protests.

Human rights defenders

Attacks, threats and killings targeting human rights defenders increased compared to 2015. At least 47 defenders were killed between January and September – including small-scale farmers, peasants, rural workers, Indigenous Peoples including quilombola communities, fisherfolk, riverside dwellers and lawyers – in their fight for access to land and natural resources. Killings, threats and attacks against human rights defenders were rarely investigated and remained largely unpunished.

Despite the existence of a national policy and a programme for the protection of human rights defenders, shortcomings in the programme’s implementation and a lack of resources meant that human rights defenders continued to be killed or threatened. In June the suspension of several agreements between governments at federal and state levels to implement the programme as well as spending cuts further undermined its effectiveness.

April marked the 20th anniversary of the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, when 19 landless farm workers were killed and 69 wounded during a brutal operation involving more than 150 police officers in the southeast of Pará state. Only two commanders of the operation were convicted of murder and assault. No police officers or other authorities were held responsible. Since the massacre, more than 271 rural workers and leaders were killed in Pará alone.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

The demarcation and titling processes of Indigenous Peoples’ land continued to make extremely slow progress, despite the expiry 23 years ago of the constitutional deadline for doing so. A constitutional amendment (PEC 215) that would allow legislators to block land demarcations – thus effectively vetoing Indigenous Peoples’ rights under the Constitution and international law – was under discussion in Congress. Demarcation of land was in some cases blocked by large-scale landowners using the land for export-led commodities production.

The survival of the Guarani Kaiowá community of Apika´y in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul was at serious risk. In July, the Apika´y community was forcibly evicted from its ancestral lands. Although the community had been notified of the eviction, it was neither consulted nor provided with any relocation options. Apika´y families were left living on the margins of a highway, with restricted access to water and food.

In October, an inquiry by the Federal Prosecution Office concluded that the murder of Terena Oziel Gabriel, an Indigenous man, was caused by a bullet shot by the federal police in a 2013 operation at the Buriti farm, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

During a visit in March, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples denounced Brazil’s failure to demarcate Indigenous land and the undermining of state institutions charged with protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

There were approximately 1.2 million asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants living in the country as of October. The government failed to dedicate adequate resources and efforts to meet asylum-seekers’ needs, such as processing their requests for asylum. The average request for asylum took at least two years to process – leaving asylum-seekers in legal limbo during that time.

In December the House of Representatives approved a new migration law safeguarding the rights of asylum-seekers, migrants and stateless persons; the law was under evaluation in the Senate at the end of the year.

Asylum-seekers and migrants reported having routinely suffered discrimination when trying to access public services such as health care and education.

During the year, in Roraima state, 455 Venezuelan nationals – including many children – were deported, many without access to due process of law.

Violence against women and girls

In May the interim federal government dissolved the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Racial Equality and Human Rights and reduced it to a department within the Ministry of Justice, causing a significant reduction of resources and programmes dedicated to safeguarding women’s and girls’ rights.

A number of studies during the year showed that lethal violence against women had increased by 24% over the previous decade and confirmed that Brazil was one of the worst Latin American countries in which to be a girl – especially due to extremely high levels of gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy, and low completion rates of secondary education.

The gang rapes of a girl on 21 May and a woman on 17 October in Rio de Janeiro state, drew nationwide attention, further confirming the state’s failure to respect, protect and fulfil women’s and girls’ human rights. Between January and November, there were 4,298 cases of rape reported in the state of Rio de Janeiro, 1,389 of those in the capital.

The year also marked one decade since legislation against domestic violence came into force. The government failed to rigorously implement the law, however, with domestic violence and impunity for it remaining widespread.

Children’s rights

In August, one adolescent died and another six were seriously wounded in a fire in a juvenile detention centre in the city of Rio de Janeiro. In September, one adolescent who had been hospitalized after the incident died as a result of injuries. The number of detainees in juvenile detention centres in Rio de Janeiro increased by 48% during the year, aggravating an already critical situation of overcrowding, poor living conditions, as well as torture and other ill-treatment.

A proposed constitutional amendment to reduce the age at which children can be tried as adults from 18 to 16 was still under consideration in the Senate, despite being approved by the House of Representatives in 2015.

  1. Brazil: Violence has no place in these games! Risk of human rights violations at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (AMR 19/4088/2016)
  2. Brazil: A legacy of violence: Killings by police and repression of protest at the Rio 2016 Olympics (AMR 19/4780/2016)

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