(São Paulo) – Brazil should ensure that qualified, independent experts are appointed to a new federal body created to combat and prevent torture, Human Rights Watch said today. The body should have sufficient resources and political support to carry out its mandate effectively.
On August 2, 2013, President Dilma Rousseff signed a law that creates a National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture. The body will consist of 11 experts with powers to visit civilian or military locations where people are deprived of their liberty, and document torture and ill-treatment. They will also be able to ask the authorities to initiate criminal or administrative investigations in cases of alleged torture, and to make recommendations to public and private institutions to eradicate torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
“President Rousseff’s signing of the National Preventive Mechanism creates an unprecedented opportunity to address the long-standing problem of torture in Brazil,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The new body’s success will depend on whether qualified, independent people are chosen to lead it, and whether it gets the support and cooperation it deserves from authorities at every level and branch of government.”
Under the new law, for the first time, an official entity will have the exclusive mandate to conduct regular visits to prisons, military detention centers, and private institutions such as psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation centers, to identify and document any and all cases of torture and ill-treatment. Existing bodies, such as the Justice Ministry’s National Council on Criminal and Penitentiary Policy (CNPCP) and the Public Prosecutors’ Office, do not have uninhibited access to all locations where people are deprived of their liberty, or lack the specific mandate to document and prevent torture.
All too often, police in Brazil use torture as a tool to extract confessions or information during criminal investigations. Law enforcement officials, including prison guards, use various forms of ill-treatment as punishment.
In 2012, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment reported that it had received “repeated and consistent” accounts of torture and ill-treatment in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo, and Goiás states. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights wrote in 2009 that during a mission to Brazil, it received information that “torture is commonly used by the police as an investigative method.” The Pastoral Prison Commission, a national nongovernmental organization, documented 211 cases of torture committed by state officials in 20 out of 26 states in Brazil between 1997 and 2009.
The Brazilian constitution prohibits torture, and a federal law imposes a penalty of up to eight years in prison for anyone who, “using violence or a serious threat, inflicts physical or mental suffering on another person for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession... or as a form of punishment.” If the abuse results in serious injuries, the penalty increases to up to 10 years, and if the person dies, up to 16 years. If a public official is the abuser, the penalty may increase by one-third.
Human Rights Watch spoke with several prosecutors and public defenders who affirmed that impunity for torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is the norm. The UN subcommittee concluded in its 2012 report on Brazil that, in cases of torture, there was a “generalized failure to bring perpetrators to justice.” During Brazil’s 2012 Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council, the Brazilian government said that it had adopted several measures to address this problem.
In one example, 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 that 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. A state criminal justice official told Human Rights Watch that while torture is rarely prosecuted, in this case prison authorities were charged with torture after national media covered the case.
In another recent case, 4 men, ages 22 to 25, were arrested on June 27 after allegedly confessing to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in the state of Paraná. The men told prosecutors, however, that police officers detained them took them to police stations, then beat and suffocated them and used electric shocks to force them to confess. The accused said they were innocent.
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.
The National Preventive Mechanism will consist of 11 independent full-time experts who will be appointed by a 23-member committee appointed by the president. The committee’s members will include 11 representatives from the executive branch and 12 from “professional groups and civil society organizations,” who will be selected after “public consultations” to ensure diversity and representation of varied constituencies.
The law grants unrestricted access for the new body, at all levels of government, to information about the total number, identity, and detention conditions of everyone deprived of liberty. Members will be able to interview detainees as well as anyone else who may have relevant information about alleged incidents of torture or other mistreatment, and may request forensic examinations of alleged victims.
The new body will draft a report after each visit it carries out, as well as an annual report with all the information it has gathered throughout the year. Based on its findings,it will have the authority to propose modifications to existing legal frameworks and make concrete recommendations to the people responsible for the detention centers visited, whether public or private institutions. It will also be able to ask the authorities to open criminal or administrative investigations in cases of alleged torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Brazil is party to several international treaties that require countries to prevent and punish torture. The American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights state that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment.” In addition, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture call on countries to adopt effective measures to prevent and punish torture within their jurisdictions.
The new body fulfills the obligation set out in the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – ratified by Brazil in January 2007 – which requires state parties to establish independent mechanisms for the prevention of torture at the domestic level. As of July, 44 state parties had established these systems, including Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
“For too long, impunity for torture has been the rule in Brazil,” Canineu said. “If adequately carried out, and with the robust support of President Rousseff, this critical new initiative can make great strides toward exposing torturers and giving their victims a chance at justice.”