(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities should conduct thorough, independent, and impartial investigations into the killing of eight people during a joint army and Civil Police raid in a low-income Rio de Janeiro neighborhood on November 11, 2017, Human Rights Watch urged today. A new law that expands the jurisdiction of the military justice system to these situations is hampering the investigation, and federal military prosecutors are not doing enough to investigate the case.
Homicide investigators have followed their usual procedures to interview civil police personnel involved in the raid. But state prosecutors need to interview all those who participated in the joint army and Civil Police raid. The army has not made its personnel available to talk to the Group of Specialized Action in Public Security (GAESP, in Portuguese) – prosecutors responsible for investigating unlawful killings and other abuses by state police – as witnesses, or even provided them with a list of the personnel who participated in the operations in the Complexo do Salgueiro neighborhood.
“More than a month later, Brazilian authorities have made no serious effort to investigate these killings,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to take immediate steps to show that they are not intent on burying this case.”
A law approved in October 2017 gives the military justice system jurisdiction over cases involving members of the armed forces who kill civilians during policing operations, as may have occurred in this case. This change makes independent investigations of such crimes virtually impossible, and threatens to put accountability for extrajudicial killings out of reach. The law needs to be repealed immediately, Human Rights Watch said.
Even under the new law, federal military prosecutors can and should do more to investigate crimes.
Federal military prosecutors do have the authority to compel members of the armed forces to give statements, and can file charges against them in military courts. However, the federal military prosecutor in charge of the case told Human Rights Watch she was relying on the army to collect the statements from those who participated in the operation, instead of taking those statements herself. She said she trusted the army procedures.
On November 7, about 3,500 members of the armed forces, as well as federal, civil, and military police forces carried out a large-scale operation in the Complexo do Salgueiro and Anaia neighborhoods of São Gonçalo, near the city of Rio de Janeiro.
As part of that operation, the army used helicopters to transport personnel to a forested area within the neighborhood, the Eastern Military Command said. Forces in Complexo do Salgueiro were to force suspects to flee through the Estrada das Palmeiras road and the forested area, where the hidden personnel expected to intercept them, a justice official told Human Rights Watch. The operation failed, apparently because someone tipped off local gang members.
Three days later, CORE – the Civil Police elite unit – and the army conducted a new similar operation in the same area, but with fewer personnel, to prevent leaks, the justice official said. Security personnel entered the neighborhood in three armored vehicles, including both army and Civil Police personnel, federal military prosecutors told Human Rights Watch.
When the armored vehicles reached the Estrada das Palmeiras road in the early hours of November 11, they found people shot and injured, CORE personnel said. They did not call emergency services, a prosecutor told Human Rights Watch. Many hours later, the families of at least two injured men found them and took them to the hospital. One, Luiz Octávio Rosa dos Santos, died of his wounds on December 1. The other seven died at the site.
Two people who were injured told prosecutors and reporters that the shots came from the forested area, and that the people who shot them had emerged from the trees. A survivor said they wore black and had laser-vision rifles and helmets. A justice official told Human Rights Watch that such equipment is typical of military special forces and that the CORE does not possess it.
Residents told Defezap – an independent phone service to which people can report police abuse – that at about 11 p.m. on November 10, they saw men rappelling from helicopters into the forest without lights, a representative of Defezap told Human Rights Watch. That is the only way to enter the area, other than through a mangrove swamp.
On November 11, the Eastern Military Command said in a public statement that those who participated in the operation encountered “armed resistance by criminals.” Later, the command amended that story, saying only that Army personnel “heard shootings.”
The command said no army personnel fired their weapons, and that therefore, the army would not open an investigation into the killings. The federal military prosecutor opened her inquiry anyway, but was relying on the army to investigate.
Before the October law was enacted, the federal police investigated unlawful killings of civilians by members of the armed forces during policing operations, and federal prosecutors would bring those cases to trial before civilian courts. Under the new law, investigations of those cases are carried out by the armed forces themselves, and federal military prosecutors – who are civilians – are the only ones who can file charges.
Trials are held before a military court made up of four military officers and one civilian judge – each with an equal vote. The appeals court, the Superior Military Tribunal, consists of 15 military officers and five civilians. Its decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Federal Court, a civilian court.
Under international and regional norms, cases involving alleged 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 those responsible for human rights violations.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has held that it is not appropriate to try violations of human rights in military jurisdictions, given that “when the State permits investigations to be conducted by the entities with possible involvement, independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”
While the investigations stall, the families of those killed suffer in silence. “My world has collapsed,” Márcia Silva Vaz, the mother of Marcelo Silva Vaz, one of the victims, told Human Rights Watch. “My son was wonderful.”
Marcelo, 32, a father of four, was shot dead while riding on a motorcycle with his best friend, Bruno Coelho da Agonia, 26, who was also killed. They both had steady jobs and lived outside of the Complexo do Salgueiro neighborhood. They went there to attend a popular outdoor dance, which was taking place about 3 kilometers away from the place where they were shot dead.
“This case shows how the law that expands military jurisdiction for homicide of civilians is a recipe for impunity,” Canineu said. “With the armed forces increasingly involved in law enforcement operations in Rio de Janeiro, it’s critically important for the law to be repealed immediately.”