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A Major Setback for Justice in Brazil

Court Voids Convictions Against 73 Military Police Officers

On October 2, 1992, the blood of 111 dead prisoners literally flooded the corridors of the Carandirú detention center in São Paulo, Brazil. This week, an appeals court voided the convictions of 73 military police officers for their participation in the killings. “There was no massacre. It was self-defense,” concluded one judge. 

But evidence presented in court debunks the claim of self-defense and points to a level of brutality hard to comprehend. 

Prisoners at the Carandiru Detention House, where 111 inmates died during a police crackdown, tell journalists that the incident was a 'massacre' and call for human rights groups to investigate conditions at the dangerously overcrowded jail, Brazil's largest, on October 6, 1992. © 1992 Reuters/Jamil Ismail

It all started at 2 p.m., when a riot broke out in the prison, which housed more than 2,000 inmates, greater than double capacity. Military police thwarted efforts to negotiate with the rioters and, at around 4:30 p.m., stormed Wing Nine. No police were injured by gunfire.

The state’s forensic analysis concluded all shots came from police and also said the police altered the crime scene. Many inmates were killed while naked, on their knees, with their hands up. There was also evidence that police officers executed inmates who were witnesses, wounded, or had been forced to remove bodies, altering the scene of the crime. 

To say there was no massacre that day is an affront to the families of the victims and the rule of law. 

For many years, the investigation went nowhere. The Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Teotônio Vilela Commission for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch jointly brought the Carandirú case before the Inter-American Commission, and, in 2000, the commission condemned Brazil over the killings. 

No one has been held accountable. In 2001, a jury convicted the commander of the operation, Ubiratan Guimarães, of 102 counts of homicide, but an appeals court overturned the verdict. Between 2013 and 2014, five juries convicted 73 military police officers of crimes related to their alleged role in the killings. They remained free pending appeal, and on September 27, two members of the appeals court ruled that the trials were invalid due to lack of evidence that linked individual police officers to specific killings. A third member of the court declared the 73 officers not guilty. The prosecutor’s office is planning an appeal. 

Police officers kill thousands of people every year in Brazil. Some are extrajudicial executions, and impunity for abuses remains the norm, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented

If nobody is held accountable for the Carandirú massacre, it will reinforce the widespread perception that police in Brazil can get away with even the most egregious atrocities.

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