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(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities need to take decisive action to curb extrajudicial killings by police, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018.

Congress made matters worse by approving a bill in October that shields members of the armed forces accused of unlawful killings of civilians from prosecution in civilian courts, moving such trials to military courts.

“Brazilian police desperately need community cooperation to fight the high levels of crime that plague the country,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “But as long as some police officers beat and execute people with impunity, communities will not trust the police.”

Police officers patrol the Rocinha slum after violent clashes between drug gangs, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil September 29, 2017. The banner reads: "The Rocinha asks for peace." © 2017 Reuters/Bruno Kelly

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Illegal killings by some officers also endanger other officers, subjecting them to reprisals for violent abuses carried out by their peers, and escalating violence during encounters with suspects, Human Rights Watch said. In 2016, 437 police officers were killed in Brazil, the vast majority of them while off-duty.

The same year, police officers killed at least 4,224 people, about 26 percent more than in 2015, according to the latest available data. After a two-year decline in killings by on-duty police officers in the state of São Paulo, the 494 killings from January to September were a 19 percent rise from the same period in 2016. On-duty police officers in Rio de Janeiro killed 1,035 people from January to November, a 27 percent increase from the same period in 2016.

While some police killings result from legitimate use of force, others are extrajudicial executions, as documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups.

Some military police officers who advocate reforms have been punished arbitrarily. State and federal codes subject officers to expulsion from the force and prison sentences for such offenses as criticizing a superior officer or a government decision.

Implementation of Brazil’s anti-domestic violence legislation, the 2006 “Maria da Penha” law, is lagging. Specialized women’s police stations have insufficient staff, are most often closed during evenings and on weekends, and remain concentrated in major cities. Thousands of cases each year are never properly investigated, according to available data.

Unchecked domestic abuse typically escalates and may lead to death. In 2016, 4,657 women were killed in Brazil. That year, prosecutors filed charges in at least 2,904 cases – some states provided partial or no data – of alleged femicide, defined by a 2015 law as the killing of a woman “on account of her gender.”

More than 24,000 children were in juvenile detention in Brazil in 2016, almost 24 percent more than total capacity. A bill under discussion would worsen overcrowding by raising the maximum time of juveniles’ internment. Another bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes to be tried and punished as adults, in violation of international norms.

In June, nine children were killed by other children in severely overcrowded detention facilities in Paraíba and Pernambuco. And in November alleged gang members kidnapped six children from a detention unit in Ceará and executed four of them.

The number of adults in prison increased 17 percent, to 726,700, in June 2016 from December 2014. At the same time, prison capacity actually decreased. In June 2016, there were two detainees per space available.

Violence against rural activists and indigenous leaders involved in conflicts over land increased. In 2016, 61 people involved in land conflicts died violently, the highest yearly number since 2003, and from January to October 2017, 64 were killed, according to the Pastoral Land Commission of the Catholic Church.

The Brazil chapter of the report also addresses human rights problems affecting LGBT people, migrants, people with disabilities, and others.

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