Relatives grieve during the burial of councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was gunned down the night before by two unidentified attackers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, March 15, 2018. Police said the 38-year-old councilor, who was known for her social work in slums, was killed by perpetrators who knew exactly where she was sitting in a car that had blackout windows. 

© 2018 Leo Correa/AP Photo
(São Paulo) – President Jair Bolsonaro should address the public security crisis that engulfs Brazil through measures that both enhance respect for human rights and reduce crime, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, met this week with members of the Bolsonaro administration to discuss human rights concerns in Brazil. The officials included Justice Minister Sérgio Moro; General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the governmental affairs minister; and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves.

“Brazilians are understandably fed up with the very high crime rate in the country,” Vivanco said. “But encouraging police to kill and packing more suspects who haven’t yet been tried into Brazil’s overcrowded prisons will undermine, not enhance, public safety.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

On his first day in office, on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro issued an executive order for the governmental affairs minister to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and accompany the activities” of nongovernmental organizations.

“We raised with authorities our concern that attempts to ‘supervise’ and ‘monitor’ these groups may undermine their independent role in an open and democratic society,” Vivanco said. “We are all the more concerned as the executive order applies not only to groups that receive government funding, but also to those that do not.”

As a candidate, Bolsonaro promised to give “carte blanche” to police to kill crime suspects. Rio de Janeiro’s new governor, Wilson Witzel, who belongs to a party allied to Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, has said that police should shoot to kill, without warning, anyone carrying an assault rifle – including using snipers and drones – even if the person is not threatening anyone. Moro told Human Rights Watch that the government is drafting a bill that will seek to “clarify” the situations in which a police officer will be able to kill in self-defense.

International human rights standards bar police from deliberately killing people except where necessary to protect their own lives or the lives of others.

The latest national data show that Brazilian police killed 5,144 people in 2017. In Rio de Janeiro state, police killed 1,444 people from January through November 2018, according to the Public Security Institute (ISP, the Portuguese acronym), a state agency. That means that Rio finished the year with the highest number of police killings since the state started collecting that data in 1998. The previous record was 1,330 in 2007.

While some police killings are justifiable, Human Rights Watch research has shown that many others are extrajudicial executions. These pit communities against police and make residents less likely to report crime and help with investigations, Human Rights Watch said. Illegal killings by some police officers also endanger other officers, subjecting them to reprisals by gang members and making suspects less likely to surrender when cornered. In 2017, 367 police officers were killed nationwide.

The previous government estimated that by the end of 2018, 840,000 people would be incarcerated in Brazil. The latest available data show 40 percent of people in detention are awaiting trial. Bolsonaro defends “piling up” even more people in the prison system, which, according to the latest available data, already holds double the number of inmates its facilities were designed to handle, often in unhealthy, violent, and gang-controlled cells.

Instead of pursuing policies that violate human rights, the Bolsonaro government should embrace reforms that are consistent with Brazil’s obligations under international law and will ultimately be more effective at reducing crime, Human Rights Watch said.

The new government and Congress should bolster the investigative capacity of the civil police to end the current climate of impunity, given the low percentage of homicides that are solved. In addition, authorities should end a “war on drugs” that only results in more violence in the streets and more power for criminal gangs, and instead decriminalize drug use.

Another crucial measure is reducing pretrial detention. The National Council of Justice (CNJ) ordered that by May 2016 all detainees should be taken, within 24 hours of arrest, to a “custody hearing” to determine if they should be in preventive detention or set free pending trial. But more than two years later, more than half of detainees still are not granted such hearings, the CNJ told Human Rights Watch, and often wait months to see a judge for the first time.

On January 15, Bolsonaro approved a decree that loosens some restrictions on gun ownership. Bolsonaro claims, among other things, that access to guns will make it easier for women to defend themselves against abusive partners. But this is not a serious response to rampant violence against women in Brazil, Human Rights Watch said.

The new federal and state governments should respond to widespread domestic violence by strengthening protection for women and ensuring justice when violence occurs. Brazil, with a population of more than 200 million, has only 74 shelters for abused women. Police fail to properly investigate thousands of domestic-violence cases each year, with the result that they are never prosecuted. “If Bolsonaro is concerned about the safety of women, he should improve legal, psychological, and other support for women and the police response to domestic violence,” Vivanco said.

Human Rights Watch also addresses human rights problems affecting children, people with disabilities, LGBT people, indigenous people, migrants, and others in its World Report 2019.