(São Paulo, July 28, 2014) – Torture remains a serious problem in Brazil despite recent measures to curb the practice, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Brazilian Congress. Congress should approve a bill that would safeguard against ill-treatment of detainees by requiring officials to physically present them before a judge for a “custody hearing” within 24 hours of arrest.
Human Rights Watch found compelling evidence in 64 cases of alleged abuse since 2010 that security forces or prison authorities engaged in cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against people in their custody. In 40 of these cases, the evidence supported the conclusion that the abuse rose to the level of torture. While these abuses often occur in the first 24 hours in police custody, detainees typically must wait for three months or more before they see a judge to whom they can directly report the abuse.
“Brazil has taken important steps to confront the problem of torture, but much more is needed,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “So long as detainees wait months to see a judge, they’re far less likely to report the abuses they’ve suffered – and by then, the physical evidence may well have disappeared.”
Twenty-six of the documented cases occurred in São Paulo, which has the highest prison population in the country. State authorities should take measures to address the problem, including creating a state entity to monitor cases and patterns of abuse throughout the state, Human Rights Watch said in a separate letter to São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin.
Senate draft law 554 of 2011, which is before the Senate Commission on the Constitution, Citizenship and Justice, would require that people arrested in flagrante – that is, caught in the act – be brought before a judge within 24 hours for a “custody hearing.” This would ensure that victims of torture would be able to report abuses at the outset of the legal process, when corroborating evidence is still available, and help to prevent confessions obtained through torture from being used in court, Human Rights Watch said.
In August 2013, President Dilma Rousseff signed into law a bill creating a National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture charged with visiting civilian and military locations where people are deprived of their liberty. In April 2014, the National Council of Justice issued a recommendation to courts setting out basic steps that judges should take to investigate credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
In the Human Rights Watch investigation into cases of alleged torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Espírito Santo, and Paraná, the evidence implicated more than 150 police officers and prison guards in these violations. The abuses took place in various settings, including in the streets and police vehicles, inside private homes during arrests, and at police stations and detention centers, and ranged from severe beatings and threats of physical and sexual violence, to electric shocks, asphyxiation with plastic bags, and rape.
In one case in São Paulo state, military police officers arrested A.B. in flagrante for drug trafficking in May 2010. The officers reported that they searched him during a routine patrol and found 80 packets of marijuana in his pocket, and that he “tripped” on the way to the police station, injuring his eyes and neck. However, when he finally appeared before a judge three months later, he testified that the officers had beaten him to force him to reveal the name of a local drug trafficker. Two neighbors also testified that they saw the police punching A.B. for 30 minutes in the stairwell of their apartment building during his arrest. He was ultimately acquitted due to gross inconsistencies in the police testimony, but an investigation into his beating was closed in August 2013 for lack of sufficient evidence.
In Rio de Janeiro, Human Rights Watch obtained evidence suggesting that the police officers involved in the disappearance of construction worker Amarildo Dias de Souza in July 2013 tortured or severely mistreated several other residents of the Rocinha neighborhood, where he lived. In one instance, the day before Amarildo’s arrest, military police officers took 16-year-old X.Z. to the local Command and Control Center and threatened him with sexual assault, shoved his head into a toilet full of feces, and forced him to eat liquid candle wax to get him to reveal the names of drug traffickers, his parents told Human Rights Watch and state prosecutors.
Most arrests in Brazil involve individuals who are allegedly caught in the act. These detainees usually must wait months before they have a chance to see a judge, as the federal criminal procedure code provides that only the police files of the arrests, not the detainees themselves, need to be presented to a judge within 24 hours. The only opportunity for detainees to report abusive treatment to a judge is most likely at their trial months later, at which point it is much more difficult to prove.
Human Rights Watch examined official data that suggests impunity in cases of serious abuses by police and prison guards is the norm. For example, as of October 2013, the São Paulo state police ombudsman’s office had received 122 complaints of incidents of torture, bodily injury, and ill-treatment that occurred between January 2011 and July 2013, none of which had resulted in sanctions against the police officers involved. Similarly, military justice officials reviewed at least 4,000 investigations into alleged incidents of bodily injury by police officers between January 2011 and July 2013. However, only 53 police officers were convicted for bodily injury committed during this period.
In São Paulo, Human Rights Watch also found evidence that forensic medical exams of detainees who reported abuse had been perfunctory, late, or conducted in the presence of police officers, making it less likely the person being examined would speak openly. Almost all of these exams failed to include critical information, most notably the detainee’s fingerprints and photographs of their injuries.
State authorities should issue a clear policy requiring prompt and impartial forensic medical exams whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that a detainee was subjected to torture or ill-treatment. The examinations should adhere to the National Council of Justice’s recent recommendation of compliance with international guidelines on torture investigations, particularly the requirements that the examinations be conducted in private and outside the presence of security agents, and that forensic medical experts must take detainees’ fingerprints and color photographs of their injuries.
“Unlike many of its neighbors, Brazil does not require detainees to be promptly brought before a judge upon arrest,” Canineu said. “By signing bill 554 of 2011 into law, lawmakers would be taking an important step toward giving torture victims a chance to speak out and ensuring that security officials who break the law are brought to justice.”
Selected cases of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment documented by Human Rights Watch in Brazil:
- Military police in Salvador, Bahia, arrested I.J., K.L., and M.N. in May 2012 and took them to the 58th military police battalion. The detainees testified that the police severely beat and strangled them in an effort to force them to confess to having drugs and illegal firearms. The accounts were corroborated by forensic medical reports showing multiple wounds on their faces, knees, elbows, and chests on the day of their arrest.
- Civil police officers arrested R.F. in June 2012 and took him to the 11th civil police station in São Paulo city for questioning. Two police investigators then dragged R.F. into a secluded room where one of them slapped, kicked, and applied electric shocks to his shoulders and legs to force him to confess to larceny, according to R.F.’s formal testimony to the civil police internal affairs unit. His account of his injuries was corroborated by a forensic medical exam carried out that night and a witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
- On January 10, 2013, guards at the Vila Velha III Detention Center in the state of Espírito Santo retaliated when prisoners protested a lack of access to water by making 52 detainees sit naked on scalding hot floors. Human Rights Watch reviewed official documents, pictures, and testimony that indicate several detainees suffered serious burns on their buttocks. One detainee told civil police authorities that when inmates complained of the burns, they were promptly beaten and doused with pepper spray “to learn a lesson.” Prison authorities also suspended detainees’ visitation rights for eight days.
- Seven officers from the ROTA military police battalion detained 17-year-old Z.Z. at his home in São Paulo during the first semester of 2013 and took him to a civil police station for questioning. After a civil police investigator released him for lack of evidence of criminal conduct, Z.Z. gave a formal statement to police authorities stating that the ROTA police had beaten him and applied electric shocks to his stomach for more than 30 minutes at his home, repeatedly demanding to know if he was a suspected criminal known as “Zabo.” The officers also allegedly threatened that they would “find and burn him” if he reported the abuse. Z.Z.’s next-door neighbor testified to police authorities that he had heard him screaming and begging for mercy, after which he saw police dragging Z.Z. to a police vehicle, his face and stomach swollen and red.
- Four men, ages 22 to 25, were arrested in June 2013 in the city of Curitiba, Paraná state, after allegedly confessing to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. The suspects told members of the Brazilian Bar Association (Paraná Section), however, that police officers had detained and taken them to several police stations, where they were beaten, suffocated, and given electric shocks in an effort to induce them to confess. A week later, forensic experts concluded that DNA evidence collected from the girl’s body did not match that of any of the four accused men. On August 1, following extensive national media coverage of the case, the Special Task Force on Organized Crime of the Paraná Public Prosecutors’ Office filed torture charges against 19 police officers and others allegedly responsible for abusing the men.
- Amarildo Dias de Souza, a construction worker, disappeared in Rio de Janeiro state after military police detained him for questioning in the Rocinha neighborhood in July 2013. Although officers later claimed that they had released him and that he had left the police unit on foot, security camera footage from the premises revealed that only police vehicles had left the site, a subsequent civil police investigation found. In October 2013, prosecutors charged 25 police officers with torturing de Souza by electric shock, asphyxiation, and water boarding in an effort to force him to reveal where local drug traffickers hid firearms and drugs.
- The day before Amarildo’s arrest, military police officers in Rio de Janeiro took 16-year-old X.Z. to the local Command and Control Center and threatened him with sexual assault, shoved his head into a toilet full of feces, and forced him to eat liquid candle wax so that he would reveal the names of drug traffickers, his parents told Human Rights Watch and Rio state prosecutors. Prosecutors also charged a Rocinha police officer with the torture of 15-year-old C.D., who was apparently taken to the Command and Control Center in May 2013, suffocated with a plastic bag, and threatened with rape and death if he did not reveal where drug traffickers hid firearms and drugs.
- E.F. and G.H., both 17, were arrested in August 2013 for alleged drug trafficking in the Caieiras municipality of São Paulo state. A video leaked to the press in October shows various officers beating the two youths, asking them, “Where is your boss?” and saying, “Don’t cry, you’re a man. Men don’t cry.” One of the youths said that the officers also suffocated him with a plastic bag and threatened to kill him if he refused to name criminal gang leaders in Caieiras, according to a human rights defender, Ariel de Castro Alves, who interviewed both of the 17-year-olds shortly after they were detained.
- In August 2013, security camera footage from the Vila Maria juvenile detention unit in São Paulo was leaked to the media showing guards beating six detainees after an attempted escape in May 2013. Two guards can be seen kicking and punching the boys with their fists and elbows, while the boys stand against a wall in their underwear with their hands behind their backs. The unit director and three other employees allegedly involved in the incident were subsequently removed from their posts.