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Brazil: The police must be held accountable for arbitrary use of force

Geneva-Manchester, 2 June 2022

Police behaviour in Brazil has reached new lows, with officers killing a man by asphyxia, and causing the death of 26 people during a brutal raid in Rio de Janeiro, in the space of just one week. As investigations into police killings rarely result in prosecutions and sanctions, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Omega Research Foundation urge Brazilian authorities to launch a complete reform of the police oversight and accountability mechanisms.

On 26 May, Mr. Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, a 38-years-old Black man, was stopped by Federal Highway Police for driving a motorcycle without a helmet, a common practice in rural Brazil. Mr. de Jesus Santos was restrained by two policemen. The officers handcuffed him, tied his legs and threw him in the trunk of a police vehicle. A third police officer allegedly threw a tear gas grenade inside the trunk. Video footage shows two officers holding the car trunk closed on Mr. de Jesus Santos’ thrashing legs, while white-coloured smoke can be seen pouring out of the car. Mr. de Jesus Santos was kept inside the trunk filled with tear gas for at least one and a half minutes.

The police officers, who admit using both tear gas and pepper spray, appear to deploy an excessive amount of chemical irritants into the trunk of the police vehicle, completely saturating the confined space. The victim is heard screaming as people around the scene shout that he could die and alert policemen about his mental health condition. This lasts for at least one and a half minutes.

A post-mortem exam found that Mr. de Jesus Santos was killed by asphyxia. The police had initially issued a note claiming that he had died ‘possibly due to a sudden illness’ while being taken into custody and following the employment of less-lethal weapons. The victim suffered from a mental health condition and carried medication with him.

Based on the video materials and the information publicly available, there is strong prima facie evidence that Mr. Genivaldo de Jesus Santos was tortured to death. The methods of restraint and the manner in which chemical irritants were employed during his arrest and containment appear to be a blatant breach of the right to be free from torture and the right to life.

The concentration of chemical irritants in a confined space with very limited ventilation for so long flagrantly contradicts all international principles on the use of force. The Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law enforcement states that ‘chemical irritants should not be used in situations of purely passive resistance’ and that, ‘once a person is already under the control of a law enforcement official, no further use of a chemical irritant will be lawful.’ Furthermore, ‘Chemical irritants should not be used in closed environments without adequate ventilation or where there is no viable exit, owing to the risk of death or serious injury from asphyxiation’.

The death of Mr. de Jesus Santos is not an isolated event. It follows a pattern of excessive use of force with the disproportionate use of lethal and less-lethal weapons by law enforcement officials in Brazil, particularly targeting non-white people. In 2021, police in Brazil killed at least 6416 people, 80% of whom were Black. Just last week, a police raid in Rio de Janeiro, involving local police and the Federal Highway Police (PRF), ended with 26 people killed. This happened despite the decisions by the Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the necessity to curb police violence in the city.

Furthermore, evidence has surfaced that the practice of using chemical irritants against individuals held inside cars is a common one in the country, with examples found in at least 11 states and videos of a police instructor teaching the method as punishment for detainees.

The OMCT and Omega Research Foundation urge the Brazilian authorities to conduct prompt, independent, impartial, transparent and thorough investigations into the death of Mr. Genivaldo de Jesus Santos and the death of at least 26 other people in Rio de Janeiro. These crimes must lead to criminal and disciplinary sanctions, commensurate to their gravity as well as to a comprehensive and independent investigation into the structural causes of police violence in Brazil. Systemic institutional reforms at the local, state and federal levels are urgently needed.

This tragic episode highlights the importance of a complete overhaul of the legal regulation of the use of force and weapons, including less-lethal weapons, as well as the need to adequately train officers on how to use them. The authorities must investigate, prosecute and punish any instance of excessive use of force in violation of human rights.

Finally, Brazil must urgently review its police oversight system to ensure that the Public Prosecutors’ Offices, mandated in the Constitution to conduct ‘external control of police activities’, have specialised units and are able to conduct investigations independently and with sufficient financial means. Brazil must take immediate steps to reverse the high levels of impunity for torture and extrajudicial killings committed by law enforcement officials.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is the largest global NGO group actively standing up to torture and protecting human rights defenders worldwide. It has more than 200 members in 90 countries. Its international Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information, please contact:
Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications

+41 79 539 41 06

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