Brazilian Army soldiers patrol outside Maracana Stadium during a rehearsal of the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 17, 2016. 

© 2016 Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
(São Paulo) – Brazil’s Senate is being asked to consider a bill that would shield members of the Armed Forces accused of unlawful killings of civilians from prosecution in civilian courts. The Senate should reject the bill because it increases the risk of impunity rather than justice in these cases.
 
“The leadership of Brazil’s Armed Forces wants to bring back a practice that was used during the time of the dictatorship,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Under the proposal, the military would sit in judgment of itself in cases that constitute serious violations of human rights, a recipe for impunity.”
 
At the end of July 2017, Brazil’s government ordered the deployment of thousands of members of the Armed Forces in Rio de Janeiro in response to an increase in violence. The soldiers will remain in the city until the end of 2018, said the commander of the Army, General Eduardo Villas Boas.

What the Armed Forces really want is to stack the deck against victims of serious human rights violations getting justice.

Maria Laura Canineu

Brazil Director, Americas Division

Members of the Armed Forces are patrolling the streets of Rio and conducting raids alongside state military police and civil police officers. If the bill is passed, soldiers charged with unlawful killings or attempted killings of civilians during those operations will be tried in military courts, while other law enforcement personnel will continue to face civilian courts. Civilian courts should continue to have jurisdiction over all unlawful killings cases irrespective of the alleged killer, Human Rights Watch said.

In the military justice system, the courts of first instance are staffed by four military officers and a civilian judge, all with an equal vote. The appeals court (the Superior Military Tribunal, SMT) is made up of 15 military officers and only 5 civilians. Its decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Federal Court, a civilian court.

The Military Criminal Code, approved in 1969 during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), provided that unlawful killings of civilians should be tried before military courts, but it was amended in 1996 to move trials for such crimes to civilian courts. Adoption of the bill would reverse a very important step in leaving behind Brazil’s authoritarian past and strengthening the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international norms, extrajudicial executions and other grave human rights violations should not be tried before military courts. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ruled that “military criminal jurisdiction is not the competent jurisdiction to investigate and, if applicable, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of human rights violations.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has held that it is not appropriate to try violations of human rights before military jurisdictions given that “when the State permits investigations to be conducted by the entities with possible involvement, independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of governments’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has called on states parties to ensure that military personnel alleged to have committed human rights violations are subject to civilian jurisdiction. According to the committee, the “wide jurisdiction of the military courts to deal with all the cases involving prosecution of military personnel ... contribute[s] to the impunity which such personnel enjoy against punishment for serious human rights violations.”

Villas Boas has called for the Senate to approve the bill, contending that soldiers deployed in Rio de Janeiro need “legal protection.” In a note to the media, the army also said that subjecting soldiers to the jurisdiction of civilian courts “can hinder prompt reaction” during security operations.

“Brazil´s civilian legal framework provides full due process guarantees to any soldier accused of an unlawful killing, just like to any other citizen,” Canineu said. “What the Armed Forces really want is to stack the deck against victims of serious human rights violations getting justice.”