Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Activists Complain to UN Rapporteur of Police Killings

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 7 2007 (IPS) - The police follow a policy of "extermination" in the favelas or shantytowns of this Brazilian city, human rights groups told U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston on Wednesday.

A declaration signed by 105 artistes, judges and representatives of social movements was presented to Alston, who reached Brazil Saturday for an 11-day visit to investigate, among other things, reports of human rights violations and police brutality in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-biggest city.

Marcelo Yuka, one of the founders of the Brazilian reggae/rock band O Rappa, who was left paraplegic when he was shot during a robbery, said at the presentation of the declaration that "a belief that has taken shape in the popular imagination is that justice has to cost lives." But "we have come here to say that this kind of thinking is not universal," he added.

Human rights groups, representatives of social movements and victims of police brutality described the problem of police violence in Rio de Janeiro to Alston at a meeting Wednesday.

Under the Brazilian constitution, "the police must have a warrant to enter a private home. But things are different in the favelas," said Jose Nerson de Oliveira, vice president of the Federation of Associations of Favelas of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FAFERJ).

"In the favelas, the police shoot their way in," he said in an interview with IPS. "If civilians are killed, the police just report them as ‘bad guys’ or victims of a stray bullet" in a shootout with criminals.

One-third of the population of the state of Rio de Janeiro, or 1.8 million people, live in 1,800 favelas, mainly on the outskirts of the capital, according to FAFERJ.

Oliveira’s voice rose when he talked about the "extermination" policy followed by the police – especially the military police, he said – in the favelas. "They just burst in shooting at everyone. And if someone happens to be passing by, well, too bad for them!"

"There is no respect for local citizens," he added. The police "break down doors and search everything without a warrant, even when there are children sleeping in the house."

"The prisons are full, and for the state it&#39s easier and cheaper to kill the poor than to arrest them. People are constantly being killed in Rio’s favelas. Everyday people are killed," he said.

The special rapporteur, who was invited by the leftwing government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to visit Brazil, will also meet with police, legal and prison authorities, and his visit will include the capital as well as the state of Sao Paulo in the south and Pernambuco in the northeast.

Alston said he was concerned about the rise in the number of police shooting victims. According to official statistics, 961 suspects were killed from January to September this year, compared to 807 in the same period last year – a 19 percent increase.

Justiça Global, a local human rights group, says the police cover up extrajudicial executions and the killings of innocent people by reporting them as the deaths of suspects killed in firefights.

"That’s the method the police found to cover up their violence," Sandra Carvalho, executive director of Justiça Global, told IPS.

Justiça Global and 14 other non-governmental organisations and social movements presented Alston with a report on the situation in Rio de Janeiro, in which they expressed their concern over "the rise in police violence and the militarisation of police operations in poor communities."

Carvalho said the term "militarisation" referred to the focus taken by the police in their clampdown on drug trafficking gangs, which she said was seen as a "war" in which local communities and residents are considered "enemies."

She pointed to the "mega police operations" carried out this year in the favelas of Rio, in which large numbers of heavily-armed police swooped down on the neighbourhoods, "causing many deaths, including those of children and elderly persons."

Parallel to the "significant rise in the number of deaths reported as the result of firefights" was a drop in the number of drug and weapon seizures and arrests, which indicates that "police action was more heavily based on the elimination of people than on protecting life," according to the NGO.

A preliminary report by Justiça Global counted 100 people killed in police operations in the city’s favelas since late June.

The group began to carry out the study after the so-called "Complexo do Alemão massacre" in May, when 19 people were killed in a major police crackdown on drug traffickers in that slum on the northside of Rio de Janeiro.

A report released Nov. 1 by the governmental Special Secretariat on Human Rights concurred with denunciations by human rights groups that the police used excessive force and committed summary executions in the operation.

Based on coroners’ reports, the Secretariat stated that many of the bullet wounds found in the victims were on the back side of their bodies, many wounds were to vital organs, the average number of bullet wounds per victim was high, many of the shots were from point-blank range, and some of the victims were shot by several different guns.

But the report was dismissed by Rio de Janeiro Secretary of Security José Mario Beltrame, who said there was not enough information and evidence available to reach the conclusion that the police had committed summary executions.

The state Secretariat of Security said in a communiqué that "the narrow alleys and passageways of the favelas, and the behaviour of and illegal weapons used by drug traffickers, restrict the usefulness of forensic manuals, making it essential to understand the broader context of the events."

Oliveira, however, referred to the testimony of survivors of the "Complexo do Alemão massacre", which is still under investigation by the police and the public prosecutor’s office.

"In the Complexo do Alemão, the police were already shooting as they came in," said Oliveira. "The home of a 64-year-old woman, who was taking care of her two young grandchildren, had 62 bullet holes."

"Many people, even after they put their hands on their heads to show that they were surrendering, had bullet wounds to their heads," he added.

But Beltrame rejected such allegations. "Our policy is not one of extermination," said the official, who added that the special rapporteur should also be informed that many police operations are based on intelligence, rather than the use of force.

Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) said he welcomed the special rapporteur from the United Nations, an "extremely respectable" institution, from which he said he had "nothing to hide."

He also said the fight against crime is "the defence of human rights."

"Human rights are something that we all support. And our policy is to guarantee the rights of the people living in local communities, who are the victims of these criminals who commit barbaric crimes," said Cabral.

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