(São Paulo, June 25, 2014) – Brazilian authorities should conduct thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of excessive force by police in crowd-control operations during the opening weeks of the World Cup, Human Rights Watch said today.
More than a dozen people were injured in confrontations between protesters and police, including five journalists. In several incidents, police have used what appears to be excessive force, including beating people who have not resisted arrest and deploying pepper spray or teargas towards protesters from short range, news media have reported.
“If violence erupts during protests, the authorities need to restore order, but that doesn’t give the police license for excessive force,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch.
While the protests have been largely peaceful, some protesters have engaged in acts of violence and vandalism, including throwing rocks at police officers, destroying cars, street signs, bank windows and storefronts, and setting garbage on fire in the streets, media reports said.
The use of force by police as reported may be excessive, however, unless strictly justified by the circumstances, including the behavior of protesters, and whether other less aggressive methods of enforcing control were appropriate and already used.
The use of unlawful force by police is a longstanding problem in Brazil, and has been perpetuated by the frequent failure to ensure that abuses are properly investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.
In Rio de Janeiro, video footage shows a group of police officers beating a man and young woman with batons in the Copacabana neighborhood during a protest on June 12. On June 15, a photographer covering a protest near the Maracanã Stadium was struck by a stun grenade on the shoulder and suffered burns and bleeding, news media reported. In São Paulo, volunteers from the Popular Protest Support Group (GAPP) removed 37 injured people from a protest near the Carrão subway stop on June 12. Most appeared to have been struck by the remains of teargas or stun grenades shot from close range.
Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of protesters have participated in nationwide demonstrations to protest grievances about public services and the high cost of staging the World Cup and Olympics. On multiple occasions, state police have used teargas, pepper-spray, rubber bullets and other non-lethal weapons in a disproportionate or unnecessary way and arbitrarily arrested protesters, journalists, and bystanders.
On June 13, 2013, for example, scores of people were injured when police officers used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators protesting an increase in bus and subway fares in São Paulo. Several media professionals were seriously injured, including a photographer, who was struck and blinded in his left eye by a rubber bullet.
International human rights treaties ratified by Brazil obligate the government to safeguard the rights of freedom of expression and association. The presence of journalists and members of the media at protests is essential to freedom of expression and information, and police should take reasonable measures to ensure that they are not harmed in the course of their work. Authorities should never target journalists for covering a protest, and police should be mindful that journalists may work legitimately to report on any issue of public concern.
Authorities should ensure that acts of violence during protests and demonstrations are met with a graded response, Human Rights Watch said, but the unlawful acts of a few, cannot be used as an excuse to deny the right to protest by peaceful protesters. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers state that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, security forces should “[e]xercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved,” the principles say.
In addition, the standards state that law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.” Because rubber bullets may in certain circumstances have lethal effects, they should be treated for practical purposes as firearms, Human Rights Watch said. The use of rubber bullets may become disproportionate, for instance, if fired directly against protesters at point blank range.
The use of teargas, which can cause serious health problems, as a method of crowd control, should also be subject to clear regulation on when it can be used, and then only when necessary and in a proportionate and non-discriminatory manner. It should not be used in a confined area, or against anyone in detention or already under the control of law enforcement. Teargas canisters should not be fired directly at people.
Other methods of crowd dispersal, not involving potential harm to protesters, should be exhausted before resort to tear gas or stun grenades, and measures to disperse a peaceful demonstration should always only be pursued to the extent the need to disperse the crowd is justified – for example by public safety. Anyone exposed to teargas should be given immediate access to a doctor and offered measures of relief.
The lack of justice for previous police use of unlawful force is a source of concern, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, in Rio, the Police Ombudsman’s Office recorded nearly 9,000 complaints of abuses by police officers in 2011, 2012 and 2013, including more than 7,900 complaints of alleged acts of violence, including rape, beatings, torture, murder, bodily injury, and other forms of physical aggression. These complaints have resulted in sanctions for only 18 officers. In São Paulo, military prosecutors reviewed 4,038 investigations into incidents of bodily injury by police officers between January 2011 and July 2013. These investigations generated 102 criminal charges and 48 convictions. More recently, in February, the São Paulo Military Police Commander stated that “no police officers were punished” in connection with complaints of abuses during protests. In fact, in several cases that Human Rights Watch reviewed in June 2013 where there was credible evidence of excessive force against media professionals and protesters, the police investigations have not yet been concluded.
“Since the confrontations began last year, President Dilma Rousseff and other senior officials have called on police to respect the rights of protesters and journalists,” Canineu said. “It’s the right message, but it needs to be backed up by comprehensive investigations into the incidents over the past year in which police have failed to respect people’s rights.”