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BRAZIL: Human Rights – the Hidden Victim of the São Paulo Killings

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 22 2006 (IPS) - Strong evidence indicates that Brazilian police have summarily executed a number of suspects in harsh retaliation for organised-crime attacks staged the May 12 weekend in the southern city of São Paulo.

The criminal and police violence that swept through São Paulo, triggering a “de facto death penalty” response, will have long-term consequences, Francisco Whitaker, consultant to and ex-secretary of the non-governmental, Catholic-Church affiliated Brazilian Commission of Justice and Peace, told IPS.

In the week since riots broke out in 82 prisons in the state of São Paulo and nearby states, the death toll has risen to 170: 107 suspects, 41 police officers – victims of organised attacks in the streets, in their homes, and at police stations û four civilians and 18 inmates, according to police.

Police authorities allege that the 107 suspects who were killed were followers of the First Command of the Capital (PCC), a gang founded in prisons in the 1990s that unleashed the violence on the night of Friday, May 12.

However, there have also been reports that innocent bystanders have been killed. On May 15, five young men in an eastern São Paulo neighbourhood were shot several times in the head and chest. All were carrying documents that showed they had steady jobs, as metal workers or store clerks.

A sixth member of the group was injured, but escaped by playing dead. His family fears that, as a witness, his life may be in danger. But several neighbours saw the massacre, apparently random vengeance for the murder of a military police officer on the same street a few hours earlier. The three killers were hooded, and claimed to be police officers.

The press has described executions of inmates’ family members or people who seem to have nothing to do with the crimes. The way many the victims were shot û in the back of the head or in the back û suggest they were not actively confronting police.

The numbers speak for themselves. By Monday May 15, when the prison riots had been controlled and the attacks ceased, official tallies listed the deaths of 38 “aggressors,” 31 civil and military police, and eight prison guards. Since then, the death toll has been one-sided: 69 suspected criminals, no police officers.

“No one killed by police was an innocent bystander,” stated Godofredo Bittencourt, director of the civil police’s Department of Organised Crime Investigations. Yet police authorities, who are accountable to the state government, have so far refused to release the names of the 107 dead suspects.

Events suggest that the police forces are “out of control,” but it is unclear whether this is due to “insubordination” or encouragement and orders from above, Congressman Italo Cardoso, chairman of the São Paulo State Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, told IPS.

On May 19, the Commission asked the judicial branch to prohibit the burial of unidentified bodies, fearing cover-ups that could sabotage investigations into suspected summary executions. The press also suggests that the brutal retaliation was indiscriminate, as it refers to the dead as “suspects” instead of criminals, observed the congressman.

The developments of the past week have fueled a major controversy, which will only heat up as the families of the dead mobilise and the public prosecutor’s office, parliamentary bodies and police departments conduct their investigations, Whitaker predicted.

Humanitarian activists now find themselves in a difficult position, “paralysed” by the PCC’s violent acts, which have provided fodder for the frequent accusations that activists defending prisoner’s human rights are in fact “defending hoodlums,” he explained.

Efforts and ideas to curb criminal and police violence now need to come from other sources, such as educational, community, social service and research movements, said Whitaker, who is also one of the organisers of the World Social Forum, which meets annually in different cities and countries to discuss initiatives that tie in with its motto: “Another world is possible.”

But the violence that terrorised São Paulo last week will have further repercussions, he warned, such as increased public support for tougher laws and police crackdowns, including proposals to reinstate the death penalty and lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16.

On May 17, the Senate unanimously approved 11 fast-tracked bills to toughen up penitentiary regimens and increase the public-security budget. Solitary confinement for up to two years for dangerous prisoners and mechanisms for blocking cell-phone communication in prisons are some of the measures awaiting a vote in Congress.

The situation will also have political consequences, particularly for the October elections, as candidates and parties sling blame for the rise in criminal violence.

As the state government, with its military and civil police forces, is responsible for security, social democratic politician Geraldo Alckmin stands to lose the most, as he recently resigned as governor of the state of Sao Paulo to run for president.

But President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is seeking re-election, is not immune to criticism, as his government made cuts to public-security budgets throughout the country.

The worst result, according to Whitaker, is that this wave of violence will broaden the already majority public opinion in favour of increasingly harsh controls, including extra-judicial executions of “hoodlums.”

The tendency is that it will “reduce society’s capacity to react” to a worsening situation, which is already “bordering on barbaric,” the result of a “lost century,” in which Brazil was unable to heal its social wounds, of which violence is only one aspect, he concluded.

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