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Armed Forces members patrol during an operation against the organized crime in Lins slum complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil August 5, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(São Paulo, April 16, 2021) – Rio de Janeiro’s attorney general, Luciano Mattos, should reinstate a recently dissolved unit of prosecutors who specialized in preventing, investigating, and prosecuting police abuse, or set up another team to carry out a similar mandate, Human Rights Watch said  today in a letter to the attorney general.

Mattos, who became attorney general for the state of Rio de Janeiro in January, eliminated his office’s Group of Specialized Action in Public Security (GAESP, in Portuguese) in March, substantially weakening the Prosecutor’s Office’s oversight over the police. Despite its limited resources, the GAESP had made important contributions to preventing and prosecuting police abuse in Rio de Janeiro since its creation in December 2015.

“Police killings and other abuses continue to plague Rio de Janeiro largely due to widespread impunity,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The attorney general has only made matters worse by eliminating the unit of prosecutors tasked with pursuing accountability for those abuses. He should reverse that decision.”

Police abuse is a chronic human rights problem in Rio de Janeiro state. Police killings were at record levels until June 2020, when the Brazilian Supreme Court prohibited police raids in low-income neighborhoods there during the Covid-19 pandemic, except in “exceptional cases.” Police in Rio still killed more than 1,200 people in 2020, more than the total number of people shot and killed by police in the United States that year.

On April 16 and 19, 2021, the Supreme Court will hold public hearings to discuss strategies to reduce police killings in Rio de Janeiro, in the context of a case in which petitioners have asked the court to order Rio to draft such a plan. Rio’s attorney general’s commitment to vigorously enforce the law in cases involving criminal activity by police officers is crucial for the success of any such plan.

In a 2020 preliminary decision that found that Rio authorities had failed to curb police killings, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin asserted that Brazil’s Constitution tasks the Prosecutor’s Office with ensuring accountability for police abuses. The decision noted that the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require an “independent institution” such as the Prosecutor’s Office to carry out this task. He ordered the Rio de Janeiro Prosecutor’s Office to conduct its own investigations in cases of suspected police misconduct, instead of relying on the police to investigate themselves.

Similarly, in a 2017 ruling on a Rio de Janeiro case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Brazil to ensure that police abuses are investigated by “an independent body, different from the public force involved in the incident, such as a judicial authority or the Public Prosecutor’s Office.”

The elimination of GAESP by attorney general Mattos makes it much harder for the Prosecutor’s Office to fulfill that mission, Human Rights Watch said.

At the time of its dissolution in March, GAESP was working on more than 700 investigations of police abuse and had filed charges in 24 cases of police killings since 2019, including high-profile cases such as the killing of 8-year-old Ágatha Vitória Sales Felix at Complexo do Alemão in 2019.

The GAESP had also opened administrative investigations on practices by police that violate basic rights with the goal of forcing the adoption and enforcement of protocols to prevent abuse. Abusive practices that they sought to address included the dangerous practice of opening fire on crowded neighborhoods from helicopters and the false “rescue” of victims as a ruse to destroy crucial evidence in police killings cases.

In March, Attorney General Mattos announced that, due to the elimination of GAESP, all cases of police abuse would be handled solely by the prosecutors with jurisdiction over the case (“promotores naturais,” in Portuguese). Most of these prosecutors are in charge of prosecuting crimes in a specific geographic area.

However, those prosecutors will find themselves investigating abuses committed by the same police officers with whom they work closely in other cases in the same jurisdiction. They may reasonably fear that signing a charging document against those officers puts them at risk of retaliation, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, they may find it difficult to handle often complex police abuse cases while dealing with a heavy caseload that includes all kinds of other criminal activity.

Promotores naturais may decide not to open their own investigations into police abuses, and instead rely solely on the findings of investigations carried out by civil police. That raises serious questions of impartiality, as civil police will be investigating their own members or military police officers with whom they may have worked in other cases.

Attorney General Mattos has also announced the creation of the office of General Coordinator of Public Security within the Prosecutor’s Office, with the mission of coordinating its work on public security. However, that office will not have authority to investigate and prosecute individual cases of police abuse, nor to conduct administrative investigations and other legal actions involving police protocols and practices that can be instrumental to ensure police respect human rights.

While some killings by the police are in self-defense, many others are the result of excessive and reckless use of force, as Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented. Abuses by police, including extrajudicial executions, make communities fear, rather than trust, the police. They contribute to a cycle of violence that endangers the lives of police officers and civilians.

“Weakening accountability mechanisms for police abuses only benefits police officers who break the law,” Canineu said. “Abusive, violent police officers not only cause great suffering to hundreds of Rio families every year, but they also undermine public security and make the job of policing Rio more difficult and dangerous for the rest of the police force.”

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