A number of proposals which threatened human rights and represented huge setbacks to existing law and policy made their way through the legislative process. Violence and killings increased, mostly affecting young black males. Conflicts over land and natural resources resulted in dozens of killings. Human rights defenders were not effectively protected. Police responded to most protests with unnecessary and excessive force.
Legal, constitutional or institutional developments
Up to 200 different proposals for constitutional amendments, new laws and changes to existing legislation threatened a range of human rights. Among other retrogressive measures, proposals were introduced to reduce the age at which children can be tried as adults to below 18; change or revoke the Disarmament Bill, facilitating licensing and purchasing of firearms; restrict the right to peaceful assembly and to criminalize social protests; impose a full ban on abortion, violating the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls; change the land demarcation process and requirements for free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities; and reduce the protection of labour rights and access to social security.
Law 13.491/2017, signed by President Temer on 13 October, provided that human rights violations, including murder or attempted murder, committed by military personnel against civilians would be tried by military courts.1 The Law violated the right to a fair trial, as military courts in Brazil did not guarantee judicial independence.
Despite these setbacks, in May a new migration law (Law 13.445/2017) came into effect, representing improvements to migrants’ rights.
Brazil’s human rights record was examined for the third time under the UN UPR process.2 Brazil received 246 recommendations, including on Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land; killings by the police; torture and degrading conditions in prisons; and protection of human rights defenders. Brazil accepted all but four recommendations; however, there remained concerns about their implementation in the context of the retrogressive laws and policies adopted during the year.
In May the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling against Brazil for its failure to grant justice for the killing by police of 26 people in Favela Nova Brasília, in Complexo do Alemão, city of Rio de Janeiro, in October 1994 and May 1995.
Police and security forces
The deployment of the armed forces for policing and law and order increased.
The authorities failed to adopt measures to reduce the homicide rate, which remained high for young black males. The number of homicides increased in major cities, especially in the northeast. National data compiled and published during the year by the Brazilian Public Security Forum revealed that 61,619 people were killed during 2016, of which 4,657 were women. Public security policies continued to rely on highly militarized police interventions, motivated mainly by the so-called “war on drugs”.
In January the Ministry of Justice announced a Public Security National Plan which was to focus on reducing homicides, tackling drug trafficking and conducting a review of the prison system. A detailed and comprehensive plan was never presented or implemented and the public security situation deteriorated during the year.
Instances of “multiple homicides” (single events with more than three victims) and “chacinas” (multiple killings characteristic of executions) increased in several cities; the authorities often failed to properly investigate. On 5 January, eight men were killed by a group of armed men in Porto Seguro, Bahia state. On 3 June, six men were killed inside a house by armed hooded men in Porto das Dunas in Fortaleza, Ceará state. On 6 June, four men and a woman were killed and nine other people were injured by a group of 10 hooded gunmen in a bar in Belem, Pará state. On 22 September, six young men aged between 16 and 23 were killed in Grande Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state. In Bom Jardim neighbourhood in Fortaleza, Ceará state, five people were killed and three others injured on 20 February, and four young males aged between 14 and 20 were killed inside a house on 8 October. In most cases, the perpetrators were unidentified.
Police interventions in favelas and marginalized areas often resulted in intensive shoot-outs and deaths. Data about people killed by the police remained inaccurate as states kept poor records using different methodologies; however, official numbers indicated that such killings increased across Brazil. Official figures showed that on-duty police officers killed 494 people in São Paulo state between January and September and, between January and November, 1,035 in Rio de Janeiro state and 148 in Ceará state.
On 13 February, four people were killed and others injured by military police during a police intervention in the favela of Chapadão, Rio de Janeiro city.
In February, a 21-day strike by the military police in Espírito Santo state resulted in chaos. Armed forces and national security forces were called in to police the state.
On 12 July, a homeless man was killed by a military police officer in the neighbourhood of Pinheiros, city of São Paulo.
In August, at least seven people were killed by the police during police interventions that continued for several days in the favela Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro city. Residents reported that police officers were violent and committed a number of abuses, such as assaults, unlawful raids on homes, and unlawful killings. The police interventions may have been in retaliation for a police officer being killed in the area.
On 3 September, 10 men were killed by civil police officers during a police intervention attempting to prevent an armed robbery in the neighbourhood of Morumbi, São Paulo city.
Early in the year, military police from the Pacification Police Unit raided several houses in the favela Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro city. These unlawful actions by police continued even after a court ruled that the police should leave the area. Those denouncing the police violations were threatened and intimidated. After months of mobilization, the Public Prosecutor’s Office brought charges against two police officers who were in command of the operation and responsible for the area.
On 11 November, seven men were killed during a joint security operation of the Civil Police and the Army in São Gonçalo, Rio de Janeiro state. Civilian authorities said they had no competence to investigate the killings after a new law expanded the jurisdiction of military courts to try crimes committed by military personnel. The military denied using firearms, and did not announce whether it had opened an investigation into the killings.
The prison system remained overcrowded and prisoners suffered inhuman and degrading conditions. The prison population reached 727,000 people, 55% of whom were aged between 18 and 29 and 64% of whom were Afro-descendant, according to the Ministry of Justice. A significant proportion – 40% nationally – of those imprisoned were in pre-trial detention, where detainees often waited several months to face trial.
In January, riots took place in prisons in several states resulting in at least 123 deaths: 64 in Amazonas state; 31 in Roraima; 26 in Rio Grande do Norte; and two in Paraíba.3
In May, 32 people escaped from Pedrinhas prison in Maranhão state; two escapees were killed by prison guards.
As a result of extreme overcrowding in prisons in Rio Grande do Sul state, some people detained by police were held for more than 48 hours in unsuitable areas in police stations and cars, while waiting for space in the prison system.
In October, a man died after being detained for a day and a night in an outdoor cage-like cell in a police station in Barra do Corda, Maranhão state. The cell had no protection from the sun or extremely high temperatures, leaving detainees at risk of dehydration and other dangerous consequences of exposure.
In Rio de Janeiro state, inhumane prison conditions were further degraded by the financial crisis, putting at risk the supply of food, water and medicines for more than 50,800 prisoners. Tuberculosis and skin diseases reached epidemic levels inside the state’s prisons.
The 25th anniversary of the Carandiru massacre, in which 111 people were killed by the police in Carandiru prison, São Paulo, was on 2 October. Those responsible for the massacre had yet to be held accountable.
Freedom of assembly
On 31 March, thousands of people protested in major cities against proposed reforms to labour laws and social security policies. On 28 April, social movements, students and trade unions called for a “general strike” and tens of thousands of people protested throughout the country after the labour reforms were approved. In many areas, including Rio de Janeiro city, the police used unnecessary and excessive force against peaceful protesters.
On 24 May at least 49 people were injured, including eight military police officers and one man who was shot with a firearm, after police used excessive force against protesters in the capital, Brasilia. Tens of thousands of people protested against President Temer in a demonstration that ended in clashes with the police and damage to public buildings. The federal government called in the military to police the area in the following days.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders, especially those in rural areas, continued to be threatened, attacked and killed. The states of Pará and Maranhão were among those where defenders were at the highest risk. According to the civil society coalition Brazilian Committee for Human Rights Defenders, 62 defenders were killed between January and September, an increase from the previous year. Most were killed in conflicts over land and natural resources. Budget cuts and lack of political will to prioritize the protection of human rights defenders resulted in the dismantling of the National Programme of Protection, leaving hundreds exposed to a higher risk of attacks.
On 20 April at least nine men were killed and others injured in Colniza, Mato Grosso state, after gunmen attacked rural workers in the settlement of Taquaruçu do Norte. The decade-long trend of frequent, violent attacks by gunmen hired by large-scale farmers and illegal loggers in the area continued.
On 24 May, 10 rural workers who were camping in the margins of Santa Lucia farm in Pau D’Arco, Pará state, were shot dead during a joint operation between military and civil police officers. On 7 July, one of the leaders of the group of rural workers, Rosenildo Pereira de Almeida, was shot dead. Survivors of the massacre continued to fear for their lives following the killings.
In September a group of armed mine workers threatened smallholders in the rural settlement of Montanha e Mangabal, in the Tapajós river region, municipality of Itaituba, Pará state.
Indigenous Peoples’ rights
Conflicts over land and invasion by illegal loggers and mine workers into Indigenous Peoples’ territory continued, resulting in several episodes of violence against Indigenous people. The government and courts undermined the institutional framework and national policies, introducing further delays in the already slow land demarcation process, aggravating conflicts over land in Indigenous territories. Data published by the Indigenous Missionary Council during the year revealed that at least 118 Indigenous people were killed in 2016.
In January, the Ministry of Justice issued a decree changing the land demarcation process, making it even slower and more vulnerable to pressure from landlords.
In April, at least 22 Indigenous Gamela people were attacked by gunmen in Viana, Maranhão state; some were shot at, others beaten, and two had their hands cut off.
The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, two independent institutions set up by the government to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights and promote access to land, presented its final report, which was approved by the House of Representatives in May. The report was a clear attack on Indigenous Peoples’ rights and had a direct intent to criminalize (including by requesting criminal indictment of dozens of people) Indigenous leaders, civil society organizations and governmental technical bodies working for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Budget cuts to FUNAI impacted negatively on its work for the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
Indigenous people from Vale do Javari, Amazonas state, reported that members of isolated Indigenous groups in the area were killed during the year. The killings were not investigated. Demarcated Indigenous land in Vale do Javari was subjected to invasions by miners.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people
According to Bahia Gay Group, 277 LGBTI people were killed in Brazil between 1 January and 20 September, the highest number since the group began compiling data in 1980.
On 15 February, transgender woman Dandara dos Santos was beaten to death in Bom Jardim neighbourhood in Fortaleza city. According to investigators, at least 12 people were involved in her killing. Two men were arrested in connection with her killing during the year.
In September, a Federal District judge authorized psychologists to use unethical and harmful so-called “conversion therapies” in an attempt to alter individuals’ sexual orientation. The decision flouted a resolution of the Federal Psychology Council confirming that psychologists cannot take any action that would “pathologize homosexuality”. The judge’s decision contributed to increasing stigma and violence against LGBTI people.
A number of proposals at city, state and national level sought to prohibit gender and sexual orientation-related issues from being included in educational materials.
Freedom of religion and belief
Throughout the year, religious centres (terreiros) of the Afro-descendant religions Umbanda and Candomblé in Rio de Janeiro state suffered several attacks by private individuals, criminal gangs and members of other religions. In August and September, at least eight centres were attacked and destroyed, most of them in Rio de Janeiro city and surrounding municipalities in the Baixada Fluminense region.
Juvenile detention facilities remained overcrowded and detainees suffered inhuman and degrading conditions.
In Ceará state, torture by state officials was recurrent inside juvenile detention facilities. During the year, there were at least 20 riots and 37 escapes from units in Ceará. Out of 200 formal reports of torture of adolescents inside juvenile detention units in Ceará between 2016 and September 2017, only two reports resulted in a formal inquiry by the state for further investigation. Reports of the chaotic state of the juvenile justice system in Ceará resulted in a formal visit by Brazil’s National Human Rights Council in September.
Early in the year, Espirito Santo state held 1,198 juvenile detainees in a system with capacity for only 754, a rate of overcrowding of more than 39%. Of the state’s 13 detention facilities, only four were operating within their intended capacity.
On 3 June, seven boys aged between 15 and 17 were killed by other teenage detainees during a riot in a juvenile detention facility in Lagoa Seca, Paraíba state.
On 13 November, four young boys were killed by hooded men who entered a juvenile justice system facility where the boys were detained.
- Brazil: Law leading to military impunity sanctioned (AMR 19/7340/2017)
- Brazil: Police killings, impunity and attacks on defenders: Amnesty International submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review – 27th session of the UPR working group, May 2017 (AMR 19/5467/2016)
- Brazil: Over 90 men killed in Brazilian prison riots (AMR 19/5444/2017)