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The government of São Paulo state must ensure a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the 138 deaths reported in the recent clashes between criminal groups and the police, Human Rights Watch said today. Those found responsible should be prosecuted.

On Tuesday, the São Paulo police appeared to have regained control following four days of violent prison riots and attacks by criminal gangs on the civilian and military police in that state. Since then, allegations reported in the media and presented to the police ombudsman claim that many of the killings may have been summary executions by the police, and that some victims were innocent bystanders.

“A thorough investigation of all the deaths is crucial to establish the truth and maintain confidence in the police,” said Paulo Mesquita, Human Rights Watch researcher on Brazil. “The state must ensure independent inquiries that will lead to successful prosecutions, no matter who the perpetrators are.”

Police say the 138 victims include 41 police officers and prison officials and at least four civilians. Thirty–eight of those suspected of taking part in the attacks were killed between Monday night and Tuesday morning, when police regained control of the city. Another 22 were reported killed on Wednesday, the day after the commander general of the military police declared that the “hunt is still on.”

“Heinous attacks on police or civilians cannot justify summary executions by police,” said Mesquita.

Prison riots and coordinated attacks on police officers have occurred before in São Paulo. In February 2001, simultaneous riots broke out in 29 state prisons, and in November 2003, three police officers were killed and 12 injured in attacks on police stations. All these attacks have been attributed to the PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital, or First Command of the Capital), a criminal organization that emerged within the penitentiary system in 1993, after 111 prisoners died during a police operation to contain a prison riot, known as the massacre of Carandiru, in October 1992.

In March 2002, more than 100 police officers taking part in Operação Castelinho ambushed a bus on a highway near Sorocaba, in São Paulo state, and killed 12 people, allegedly PCC members. In December 2003, the Public Ministry brought charges of homicide against 53 police officers involved in the operation.

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