Human rights and the Brazilian justice system

Introduction

In 2012 and 2014, Brazil enjoyed being under the international spotlight as it hosted both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games. However, more recently, Brazil has attracted more unfavourable attention from human rights organisations, who have frequently accused Brazil of violating basic human rights laws, particularly in relation to its justice system. Thousands of people have allegedly been killed by police since 2015 while conditions in Brazil’s jails have been castigated for being inhumane and prison officers have been accused of conducting torture.

A history of police misconduct

Brutality and violence within the Brazilian police force has been evident for much of the last decade. The Brazilian Forum on Public Security - a body comprised of security officials, research centres and NGOs - counted over 11,000 citizen deaths perpetrated by the police in the country between 2009 and 2013. The Economist reported that since 2000, three on-duty police officers had been responsible for at least 69 killings as well.  

A number of human rights organisations have expressed concern regarding the Brazilian police force’s conduct. Human Rights Watch have found “clear evidence” of police cover-ups. One report found officers involved in these killings have taken the corpses of their victims to hospitals to destroy crime scene evidence under the false pretext of rescuing them, and, in some cases, police officers have planted evidence on their victims before forensic investigators arrive.

In response to these abuses, the Brazilian government introduced a number of measures in the early 2010s to curb the violence, including: higher levels of community police training; cameras installed in police cars; and a new law to prohibit police from taking victims to the hospital.

Ongoing problems

But continuing police killings in the country suggest these reforms have not been effective. Human Rights Watch report  ongoing misconduct by police: for example, in 2015, 3,345 people were killed by police forces in Brazil. Similarly Amnesty International found that, in 2015, police were responsible for one in every five deaths in São Paulo.  Human rights organisations have also raised concerns about a worrying culture of cover-ups among police officers. In 64 recent cases that Human Rights Watch have examined, the police officers’ accounts of the shootings appeared incompatible with the autopsies or other forensic reports and showed disregard to international standards, Brazilian law, and internal police regulations governing the use of lethal force.

Problems in prisons

Police misconduct is only one of the human rights issues affecting Brazil’s justice system. Reports suggest that Brazil prisoners are subjected to inhumane detention conditions and possible torture.

Prisons are significantly overcrowded in Brazil with the number of prisoners far exceeding total capacity. Official estimates in Brazil place the number of prisoners in detention close to 660,000 with official capacity closer to 394,000. In a landmark case, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that inmates in the country’s heavily overcrowded prisons are entitled to compensation from the state.

Reports suggest that the poor conditions inside these jails are having a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of prisoners. The New York Times reports that incarcerated Brazilians are around 30 times more likely to contract tuberculosis and almost ten times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population. Human Rights Watch have said that overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control and that in many prisons the required ratio of one prison guard for every five detainees ratio is not being met, thereby breaking the National Council of Criminal and Prison Policy. An inmate at one of the prisons summarised the conditions by saying that “no one deserves to be here.”

Conditions for female prisoners have also been criticised. Brazilian law states that women should be held in prisons exclusively for women, but this does not appear to be the case in reality. Female prisoners have reported being harassed and groped by male prison guards who legally should not have been present at the prisons. Female prisoners are also forcibly separated from their babies after six months and pregnant women are reported to be given an inadequate diet, contravening human rights guidelines.

International human rights organisations have also reported that torture is widely used in Brazilian jails. In its January 2016 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment found that torture and ill-treatment by police and prison staff are “frighteningly regular occurrences” in Brazil. This is an account supported by an official report into Brazil from Amnesty International. In response to these allegations, the Brazilian government established the National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combating of Torture. This body visited six states in Brazil and found cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in “most, if not all” of the 17 jails and prisons it inspected.

Conclusion

Police brutality, killings and inhumane treatment of prisoners appear to be endemic across Brazil. Despite reforms aimed to alleviate the problem, the issue seems to have remained. Brazil is at present undergoing its third universal periodic review, a process which involves a peer review of human rights in every country within the United Nations by other member states, who  then make recommendations on the problems in that state. International human rights organisations are hopeful that the Brazilian government will act on and accept the recommendations which will come from this report. Without significant change and reform, there is a danger that the alleged human rights violations in the Brazilian justice system may continue or even worsen.
 

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue