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(Washington, DC) – Rio de Janeiro state should ensure that killings by police are thoroughly investigated and that officers who use unlawful force are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral.

The letter highlights initiatives that the Cabral administration has taken to improve public security, but finds that it has made little progress in addressing the obstacles to police accountability that Human Rights Watch documented in a comprehensive report and raised in meetings with Cabral in 2009. The new findings are based on extensive interviews with justice officials, public security experts and favela residents, and a review of recent cases in which police appear to have executed favela residents and then falsely reported that the victims had died in shootouts.

The governor should actively support the creation of a specialized unit of prosecutors within the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate police killings, Human Rights Watch said. The Cabral administration should also take steps to prevent misreporting of these cases and remove obstacles to investigating potential abuses.

“We commend Governor Cabral’s initiatives to re-establish territorial control and the rule of law in communities long controlled by criminal gangs,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But if police who commit abuses are not brought to justice, unlawful police killings will continue and Rio de Janeiro’s legitimate efforts to curb criminal violence will suffer.”

The Cabral administration has implemented two innovative policies aimed at improving public security in the state: the System of Goals and Results Tracking and the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs). Twenty-three new units have been set up in approximately 100 low-income communities, and public security officials now set crime reduction targets for every policing district in the state, whereby police officers who meet their district targets receive bonuses every semester. Both policies could help to promote more effective policing and reduce police abuses in Rio, Human Rights Watch said.

But Human Rights Watch found that extrajudicial executions by police remain a serious problem, and that these cases are misreported as “resistance killings,” the result of shootouts with criminal suspects.

In one case from June 2011, for example, 11-year-old Juan de Moraes disappeared after an incident in the Danon favela in which three other people were shot by military police, one fatally. The police reported the incident as a “shootout” with “armed assailants.” Civil police investigators only undertook a serious investigation to determine what took place after the case received extensive media attention. They ultimately found Moraes’ DNA at the crime scene and other forensic evidence indicating that there had been no shoot-out.

That same month, Diego Beliene was shot to death by military police in the Salgueiro favela. The police reported the death as a “resistance killing,” claiming that Beliene was wounded during a shootout in the street. However, civil police investigators found forensic evidence and testimony from witnesses indicating that a police officer shot Beliene after he entered a property that had been occupied by the police. Police held Beliene in custody for more than half an hour as he bled to death, refusing pleas by his family members to allow them to assist him.

Misreporting of police killing cases and inadequate investigations by civil police are major factors contributing to widespread impunity, according to state prosecutors who spoke with Human Rights Watch. No police officers have been held accountable in the majority of cases that Human Rights Watch documented in 2009. For example, no one has been brought to justice in connection with the Complexo do Alemão police killings of 19 people on June 27, 2007, despite extensive evidence that multiple extrajudicial executions occurred, crime scene evidence was deliberately destroyed, and investigators negligently failed to request obvious forensics analysis.

In addition to supporting the creation of a specialized unit to prosecute killings by police, the governor should take steps to ensure that thorough and effective investigations can take place, Human Rights Watch said. These should include:

  • Requiring police officers to notify prosecutors of “resistance killings” immediately after they take place;
  • Strictly enforcing a proper crime scene protocol that deters police officers from covering up unlawful killings; and
  • Establishing a special unit of civil police investigators to assist prosecutors charged with reviewing police killing cases. 

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