The Brazilian government has set up a witness protection program, PROVITA, run by non-governmental organizations and jointly funded by federal and state governments, cited in paragraph 76 of its report. While the creation of this program is an important step forward and one that this organization was calling for in its 1996 submission to the HRC, Amnesty International has consistently been informed that it is limited in its scope and vulnerable to the inconsistency of its funding. The level of police involvement in killings and organised crime is best exemplified by the fact that the majority of those in PROVITA are being protected from members of the police who are being investigated or have been charged. In the state of Espírito Santo, widely criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial and Summary Executions as well as the former Minister of Justice among others for extensive “death squad” activity, Amnesty International was informed by local NGOs that at least 90% of those under protection were testifying in cases involving members of the state’s police forces.
Amnesty International has consistently received information that police involved in such incidents follow a process reportedly aimed at hindering any possible investigation. This includes removal of dead bodies from the scene of the crime in an apparent attempt to “rescue” them, planting of guns on corpses, removal of bullets, shells and other evidence, among other things. Threats, intimidation and attacks against witnesses are also consistently reported.
Today in Brazil, there continue to be no means of independent investigation of human rights violations committed by members of the police. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, forensic examinations of such cases are deemed to be limited at best, as forensic investigation units lack independence, being either directly linked to the state civil police or to the state secretariat responsible for public security, or due to the lack of resources available to them. Secondly, investigations are done either by the civil police or by the internal investigations unit of the relevant police force. Thirdly, though some states do have police ombudsman’s offices, cited in paragraph 4 r of the state report, these have extremely limited powers, being neither able to investigate reported incidents or to initiate judicial proceedings. They also have been shown to have limited independence, with their appointment and their funding reportedly controlled by state governments in certain states. Ombudsman’s offices have been most effective when documenting systematic patterns of human rights violations by police and by denouncing these publicly. Public Prosecutors, who do have the power to investigate, rarely if ever investigate such killings and do not have the resources to do forensic examinations.
Even following legislative reforms which have allowed for cases of killings by military police to be tried in civil courts and following the creation of a witness protection program, successful prosecutions of police are limited. This is due to a number of reasons, including those cited above as well as the incredible slowness of the judicial system, the reluctance by some judges and prosecutors to take on such cases, and above all by the lack of access to justice suffered by many marginalised groups as expressed by the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of the Judiciary. Also of concern has been the increasing practice of some courts to declare the proceedings “in camera”, severely limiting the victim’s family the right to a fair trial.
It is notable that of the four internationally known massacre cases from Brazil, involving members of the military police, none of the judicial processes has been completed satisfactorily. Regarding the massacres of Candelaria and Vigario Geral, both of which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1993, only a very few of the numerous police officers charged were convicted while some prosecutions are still pending. In relation to the massacre of 19 land activists in Eldorado dos Carajás, which took place in the state of Pará in 1997, and the massacre of 111 detainees in the Carandiru prison in São Paulo in 1992, only the commanding officers have been convicted though none are detained while they appeal the sentences.
What is more, in the case of Carandiru the commanding officer was elected as a state deputy while appealing against his prison sentence of over 600 years. In relation to lower ranking police officers, both prosecutions have been hindered by the inability of forensic investigations to ascertain individual responsibility for the killings. Thus, in both cases these prosecutions are still pending.
Federalisation of human rights crimes
In its submission presented to the HRC in 1996, Amnesty International again reiterated its call for a process that would allow for the federalisation of investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations where the state authorities have shown a persistent failure to do so effectively. Since then, the federal authorities have made important steps in this direction. Firstly, under presidential decree [medida provisoria] nº 27 of 24 January 2002, the federal police were given powers to investigate, among other things, cases of human rights violations where the federal government was deemed responsible under its international human rights obligations.