Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Arrests in Judge’s Murder “Good News” – But Not Enough

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 16 2011 (IPS) - The arrest of the alleged killers of Brazilian judge Patrícia Acioli, known for her work against organised crime, is seen by analysts and legislators as a step in the right direction in the fight against corruption and impunity.

But they warn that it is likely that more people were involved in the assassination.

An order for the arrest of three military police officers from São Gonçalo, an industrial city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, was issued Sunday Sep. 11.

But they were already in prison, on an arrest warrant signed by Judge Acioli herself just hours before she was shot down in front of her house in the neighbouring city of Niterói by gunmen who opened fire from two cars and two motorcycles.

The three police officers – Lieutenant Daniel Dos Santos Benitez Lopes and Corporals Sérgio Costa Júnior and Jefferson de Araújo Miranda – were questioned for eight hours on Tuesday Sep. 13, and denied the charges.

Rio de Janeiro police homicide chief Felipe Ettore said there was no doubt about who the killers were or about the motive behind the Aug. 12 murder, which was “to block the progress of the lawsuit” against them that Acioli was handling, and to keep her from issuing the warrant for their arrest – which they did not know she had already signed.

The three police officers were under prosecution for the June murder of an 18-year-old young man, Diego da Conceição Beliene, from the Morro do Salgueiro favela or shantytown in São Gonçalo, located 60 km from Rio de Janeiro.

Beliene was reportedly killed in an “act of resistance”, as the police generally classify incidents in which civilians are shot by police in supposed firefights with drug traffickers.

Human rights defenders say the category is used to cover up police brutality and extrajudicial killings by the police.

The police force in Rio de Janeiro has a reputation as one of the most violent in the world. According to rights watchdog Amnesty International, some 1,000 people a year are killed by the city’s police. And a full 90 percent of homicides go unsolved in Rio de Janeiro, according to official figures.

The progress made in the Acioli murder case shows “the state’s interest in solving it…and that is good news,” Ignacio Cano, at the Rio de Janeiro State University’s Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence, told IPS.

It is also “good news,” he said, that the state has recognised that “the impunity surrounding ‘acts of resistance’ killings by the police ended up causing something so serious as the death of a judge,” he said, adding that the state’s failure to act in the face of “summary executions by police leads to tragic results like this.”

Acioli was known for clamping down hard on corrupt police, militias made up of off-duty police, and illegal transport and fuel rackets.

Cano said it was ironic that the judge had a reputation for “taking a hard line just because she enforced the law, which should be the norm.” What that implies, he said, is that “many others are not fulfilling their role, whether it’s because of a lack of conviction, fear or worse.”

State legislator Marcelo Freixo, who has received death threats for leading a parliamentary investigation into vigilante militias in Rio de Janeiro, said that if many judges did what Acioli was doing, she would not have been killed.

“She was a very courageous voice in the midst of the enormous cowardice that prevails among judges,” the lawmaker, of the opposition Socialism and Freedom Party, told IPS.

Between 2007 and July 2011, there were 31,000 “violent deaths” in the state of Rio de Janeiro, a category that encompasses anything from manslaughter and grievous bodily harm resulting in death to “acts of resistance”.

According to the National Council of Justice, at least 87 judges have received death threats in this country of 192 million people, like Acioli had.

For that reason, “solving this case by punishing the perpetrators is essential for moving in the direction of real democracy,” said Maria Luisa Mendonça, director of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.

The impunity enjoyed by corrupt police and militias “is a vestige of the (1964-1985) military dictatorship and is at the root of human rights violations today,” Mendonça told IPS.

That impunity causes murders of human rights defenders, peasants in land disputes, religious workers, and, “in this case, a judge who had the courage to break with that cycle.”

But Cano and Freixo urged caution with respect to assuming that Acioli’s murder has been solved. As state lawmaker Freixo said, there are probably others behind the crime, “because many people had an interest in seeing Patrícia Acioli dead.”

“In a murder like this, that targeted a member of the justice system, it is unlikely that only three police officers were involved,” he said.

“Sometimes people are arrested and later released on the grounds of lack of evidence. We’ll have to see if the evidence is solid,” said Cano, referring to a common reason that cases are shelved in Brazil.

Acioli’s family is also wary. The judge’s cousin, Humberto Nascimento, believes the three imprisoned police officers are “scapegoats” for a more sophisticated criminal organisation, and that the murder must have had “logistical support” from the men’s military police unit.

“They are being blamed because they were going to be sentenced to prison for 30 years anyway for that young man’s murder,” he said.

The investigators have offered a few details on the case. For example, that the assassination was planned a month ahead. According to Ettore, the suspects waited for Acioli to leave the São Gonçalo court room where she worked, and followed her home on a motorcycle, as shown by traffic camera videos.

The investigators also found that before the murder, the killers used a vehicle from the military police officers’ unit to scope out the judge’s neighbourhood. In addition, tests proved that the bullets came from military police guns.

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