Thursday, October 3, 2013

Rio Police Accused of Torture, Killing Missing Bricklayer

The disappearance of Amarildo de Souza, a bricklayer from the Rio de Janeiro favela of Rocinha, took a new turn after investigators accused ten police officers in the city of torturing and murdering him. The case has gained traction ever since his disappearance almost three months ago, and the question “Where is Amarildo?” has become a kind of rallying cry for protests against police abuse in Rio.

On Tuesday, O Globo reported that an investigation into the July 14 disappearance revealed that de Souza was arrested by members of Rio’s UPP (Pacifying Police Units) investigating a drug trafficking network in Rocinha. The officers then submitted him to electric shocks and asphyxiation with a plastic bag. The interrogation proved fatal for de Souza, who was an epileptic. According to the paper, at least three other Rocinha residents claim to have been tortured in a similar fashion by UPP authorities.

Ten officers have been accused of involvement in de Souza’s death, including Edson Santos, the UPP commander in Rocinha at the time. Santos allegedly bribed two witnesses to claim that a local gang was behind de Souza’s disappearance, but they eventually recanted the story to authorities.

Neither Santos nor any of the other officials allegedly involved have been detained, though prosecutors have 30 days to file charges against them, according to the AP. Meanwhile, the search for de Souza’s remains continues.

The New York Times notes that the development is sure to fuel frustration with police forces in Rio. This is especially the case in poor neighborhoods like Rocinha, where locals view UPPs with mistrust due to widespread allegations of abuse.

However, in some ways the publication of the investigation’s findings is good news for human rights advocates. Maria do Rosario, the Brazilian Secretary for Human Rights, told reporters that the fact that the allegations have come out after months of silence shows that democratic institutions in the country are “maturing.”

Recent months have brought further signs that Brazil is making progress on investigating and preventing abuses by security forces. In August, for instance, President Dilma Rousseff signed a new law which will create a “National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture.”  As explained in this helpful overview of the law by rights group Conectas, the new body will be staffed with 11 members, who will have the authority to visit civilian and military detention centers to monitor treatment of prisoners, as well as recommend official investigations to authorities. This panel will be selected by a 23-member commission made up of representatives from federal agencies and civil society groups, who will be appointed by the president.



News Briefs
  • On September 30, the Catholic Church in El Salvador shut down Tutela Legal, a legal and human rights office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador which has played a historic role in human rights investigations in the country. Salvadoran news site El Faro reports that the closure was completely unexpected. The legal center’s staff arrived to work on Monday morning to find the doors shut and security guards placed in front of the building. When they asked about the reason for the closure, employees were told that the center “no longer has a reason to exist.”   The L.A. Times notes that Tutela Legal’s closure was suspiciously announced right after the country’s judicial branch agreed to hear challenges to its amnesty law, which, if overturned, could lead to the prosecution of human rights abuses.
  • Police in Brasilia clashed with indigenous rights demonstrators yesterday who were attempting to enter Congress, part of nationwide protests against a proposed constitutional reform which would allow congressmen to have a role in demarcating indigenous land. As the L.A. Times reports, the law has the support of the country’s powerful agricultural lobby, and is opposed by indigenous groups who say it is a continuation of escalating disputes with rural farm owners seeking to expand into their ancestral homelands.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports that an Ecuadorean commission charged with investigating the 2010 police revolt in the country found that "certain political actors" were behind it, including former President Lucio Gutierrez.
  • A coalition of women’s’ rights groups in Colombia has presented a new report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), providing a critical look at the role of sexual violence in the country’s armed conflict. According to the report (.pdf), the majority of reported cases of sexual assault against women which were linked to the conflict in 2011 were attributed to state security forces, (58 percent) followed by paramilitary groups (27 percent) and guerrilla groups (some  15 percent).
  • The BBC provides an interesting overview of the work of the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR), the institution charged with facilitating the demobilization of members of armed groups. According to ACR Director Alejandro Eder, his agency has the capacity to receive some 40,000 ex-combatants, and has had considerable success helping former rebels reintegrate into society. Still, he estimates that the rate of those who have left the program only to resume criminal activity is around 20 to 25 percent.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics has some analysis of the latest poll data ahead of the country’s November presidential elections. A September survey by polling firm Paradigma shows left-wing LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro statistically tied with Juan Orlando Hernandez of the conservative National Party, with 22.8 to 21.9 percent. With undecided voters likely to split fairly evenly between these two, the blog’s authors argue that the election will be determined by supporters of the declining Liberal and Anti-Corruption Parties, some of whom may choose to abandon their candidates for the leader closest to their ideology.
  • On Tuesday, riot police in Haiti broke up an anti-government demonstration by thousands of people marking the anniversary of the 1991 ousting of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Protesters called for new local and legislative elections, which are two years overdue and do not appear to be held anytime soon despite the promises of current President Michel Martelly.
  • While opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Uruguayans (albeit a diminishing one) are against a marijuana regulation bill under consideration in the country’s senate, a new survey conducted by Factum shows that this opposition is much more flexible than the previous polls showed. According to Factum, the vast majority -- 78 percent -- of those surveyed say they prefer users of marijuana have access to the drug through the state, compared to just 5 percent who say they prefer it to be sold on the illegal market.
  • Today’s Wall Street Journal features a favorable account of Uruguay’s marijuana bill, placing it in the context of a series of civil rights legislation which included decriminalizing abortion and legalizing gay marriage in the country. As the WSJ notes, this right-based agenda has opened up the ruling Frente Amplio coalition to criticism that it is losing focus on the state’s role in providing social services. In an AP profile of Senator Lucia Topolansky, the wife of President Jose Mujica who has been named as a potential vice president in the next administration, the senator argues that the president’s agenda is based on the fact that the party has already accomplished its main social aims. “The country is ready now for this rights agenda,” she told the wire agency.