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(Rio de Janeiro) – Torture and extrajudicial killings by police contribute to a cycle of violence in Brazil, undermining public security and endangering the lives of police officers, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017.

Illegal killings make gang members less likely to surrender peacefully to police when cornered and motivate criminals to kill police whenever they have the opportunity. Human Rights Watch said. The killings also make community members less likely to report criminal activities or come forward as witnesses.

A military police armored vehicle passes by a person killed by police on April 7, 2016 in the Jacarezinho favela. Military police killed two other people during the same raid.  © 2016 Carlos Cout

 “The community's cooperation with the police is key to reducing the high levels of crime in Brazil,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Turning a blind eye to police abuse not only denies justice to victims' families, it antagonizes communities and puts the police officers who patrol them at risk.” 

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

Police officers killed at least 3,345 people in 2015 in Brazil, according to the latest available data. While some police killings result from legitimate use of force, others are extrajudicial executions, as Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented.

Brazilian women and girls of child-bearing age face new health challenges from an outbreak of the Zika virus. Brazilian authorities should strengthen information and prevention programs, as well as provide better support for the families with children diagnosed with Zika syndrome, Human Rights Watch said.

Inhumane conditions in prisons and detention centers is an urgent problem. More than 622,000 adults are behind bars, 67 percent more than the prisons were built to hold, according to official data. Overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control within many facilities, leaving detainees vulnerable to violence and gang activity.

Ninety-nine detainees were killed in prisons in the states of Amazonas, Roraima and Paraiba in the first eight days of January 2017, and 22 were killed in prisons in Roraima, Rondônia, and Acre in October 2016. In addition, eleven children were killed in two juvenile detention centers in the state of Pernambuco in October 2016.

More than 24,000 children are in juvenile detention, almost 24 percent more than the facilities' capacity. A bill under discussion would worsen overcrowding by raising the maximum detention period.

Torture and mistreatment of detainees, including children, is an acute problem, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented. The government's National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combatting of Torture found cases of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in “most, if not all” of the 17 jails and prisons it inspected between April 2015 and March 2016.

A positive step taken in 2016 was the expansion of “custody hearings” to all state capitals and some other jurisdictions. Such “custody hearings”–carried out promptly after arrest–help judges determine who should be in preventive detention and who should be set free pending trial. Brazil´s Congress should pass a proposed bill to make such hearings mandatory throughout the country.

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