(São Paulo) – Brazil needs to ensure accountability for unlawful police killings and torture and do more to alleviate inhumane conditions in its severely overcrowded prisons, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

“Brazil’s prisons remain a human rights disaster,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director of Human Rights Watch, “and the number of police killings remains extremely high.”

Among Brazil’s Overpacked Prisons, Pernambuco Tops the List

In Rio de Janeiro, in 2015, 644 people died at the hands of on-duty police officers – a 10 percent increase over the previous year. In São Paulo, on-duty officers killed 494 people in the first nine months of the year, an increase of 1 percent. Police routinely report that the people they have killed died in shootouts, but officers in several states were implicated in death squad-style killings. The grim 2015 figures follow a year in which, nationwide, the number of killings by both on- and off-duty police officers increased by almost 40 percent, to more than 3,000, while the number of police officers killed – almost 400 – dropped by 2 percent.

Human Rights Watch said that Brazil’s prisons hold more than 600,000 people, which exceeds what the facilities were built to hold by 61 percent. Overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control within many facilities, leaving inmates vulnerable to violence and gang activity, as Human Rights Watch documented in the states of Pernambuco and Maranhão.

“But on the positive side,” Canineu continued, “people arrested in many jurisdictions are now brought promptly before a judge, which guarantees a basic human right and that might also reduce prison overcrowding and torture.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Under a pilot program started in 2015, those arrested in all of Brazil’s state capitals are being brought promptly before a judge, as required by international law. Such “custody hearings” allow judges to determine whether a detainee should be incarcerated or released pending trial – potentially reducing prison overcrowding. Custody hearings should also discourage police torture by giving detainees the opportunity to complain of mistreatment and judges the chance to examine detainees for signs of abuse. In Rio de Janeiro, almost 20 percent of detainees who had a hearing during the first month of that state’s program said that they had been mistreated by police.

Congress should pass proposed legislation to mandate custody hearings nationwide, Human Rights Watch said, and another bill, also pending, that would make it more difficult for police to cover up unlawful killings.

Congress should also reject a proposed constitutional amendment to allow 16- and 17-year olds to be tried and punished as adults, as well as a counterterrorism bill containing vague language that could be misused to prosecute demonstrators as terrorists and others engaged in dissent, and whose provisions also endanger freedom of expression.

At least seven journalists and bloggers were killed in 2015. All had reported on corruption or crime and had criticized local politicians.

Internationally, Brazil continues to lead on the right to privacy, and over the past five years, it doubled the number of refugees admitted from Syria and elsewhere. However, Brazil had an inconsistent record in 2015 as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. It abstained on an important resolution condemning human rights violations in the Syrian conflict, and on another to renew the mandate of the special rapporteur on Iran, a strong critic of human rights violations there. But then, in June, Brazil approved a Syria resolution similar to the one it abstained from in March, on the grounds that the new one contained stronger language on violations by armed opposition groups, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.