In a letter to State Governor Cláudio Lembo, Human Rights Watch expressed its concern regarding the complaint filed by Fundação Estadual para o Bem Estar do Menor (Febem) against Ms. Conceição Paganele, president and founder of Associação de Mães e Amigos de Adolescentes em Risco (Amar) and urged the state of São Paulo to address abuses in its juvenile detention facilities.

Ms. Paganele is one of several representatives of non-governmental organizations who regularly visits Febem’s juvenile detention facilities pursuant to the state’s policy of external oversight of these facilities. This sort of oversight is extremely important in light of the frequent allegations of abuses within juvenile detention facilities in Brazil.

It would appear that rather than addressing the chronic problems that fuel rebellions at detention units, Febem has opted to file a complaint against one of the most prominent juvenile rights advocates in the country. The complaint, which is apparently based solely on the statements of Febem’s own agents, creates a serious risk that people doing necessary human rights work will be intimidated.

In particular, we are very concerned that Febem’s complaint will intimidate civil society organizations overseeing the juvenile detention system, as well as other juvenile rights defenders in the state. The complaint is apparently based solely on the statements of three detention officers at a Febem facility, who allegedly claim that, during the April 4 rebellion in the facility, they overheard two juvenile detainees talking on a cell phone to a person who appeared to be advising them. According to the complaint, the officers heard one of the juveniles state that Ms. Paganele was the person on the other side of the call.

Ms. Conceição Paganele and Amar received the National Human Rights Prize, in 2001 and 2003 respectively, for their work in the defense of the rights of children and adolescents at risk, particularly those at Febem’s units for juvenile offenders in the State of São Paulo. Her work has been nationally and internationally recognized as a significant contribution to improvements in Febem’ units for juvenile offenders and the effective application of the Child and Adolescent Statute in the State of São Paulo.

In January 2005, together with Conectas Human Rights, Pró-Bono Institute, Center for Justice and International Law, Global Justice and the National Movement for Human Rights, Amar requested before the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights precautionary measures to secure the life, physical and psychological integrity of juvenile offenders in Febem´s unit 41, at Vila Maria Complex, in the City of São Paulo. These groups presented the request after a session of torture and ill treatment, on January 12, which resulted in injuries to eighty adolescents in the unit, as attested by Instituto Médico Legal, the state’s forensic agency.

Abuses often happen in juvenile detention centers because they are closed institutions, subject to little external oversight. In recognition of this fact, international human rights norms call for independent and objective monitoring of juvenile detention centers as an essential measure to guarantee the rights of juvenile detainees. Regular and guaranteed access to juvenile detention centers by independent monitors –public defenders, prosecutors, judges, national and international human rights groups– can play an immensely positive role in preventing or minimizing violence in these centers.

In a report on the detention units for juvenile offenders in the State of Rio de Janeiro, published in June 2005, we noted that: “In contrast to Rio de Janeiro, the state of São Paulo now gives a mother´s association (Associação de Mães e Amigos de Crianças e Adolescentes em Risco, AMAR) and four other groups from civil society free access – not limited to previously scheduled workshops and presentations – to all its juvenile detention centers, an important advance for the state´s troubled juvenile detention system.”

To prevent abuses like those that occurred in unit 41, it is crucial that civil society groups continue to have access to Febem’s facilities, without fear of retaliation.

We urge you to ensure that the State of Sao Paulo and Febem work constructively and transparently with juvenile rights advocates and civil society groups to fulfill their responsibilities toward juvenile offenders under international law and the Child and Adolescent Statute.

We appreciate your consideration and thank you in advance for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director

Paulo de Mesquita Neto
Researcher on Brazil