Advocacy update

Acquittal Marks Advance for Struggle against Torture in Brazil

December 20, 2019
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A criminal court in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has for the first time acknowledged the validity of internationally agreed standards on effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture—resulting in the acquittal of seven torture survivors who had been tried for drugs-related charges.

The acquittals on December 17 by Rio’s 23rd Criminal Court followed an investigation of torture complaints requested by the Human Rights Unit of the Public Defender’s Office (Defensoria Publica) of Rio de Janeiro, which applied the standards set out in the UN-endorsed Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, known as the Istanbul Protocol.

The examination of alleged torture survivors ordered by the court was carried out by Rio’s forensics institute (Instituto Médico Legal) which is part of the civil police, and supported by the guidance of independent international medical experts from  the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. The Justice Initiative also provided advice on documentation to the Defensoria, as part of its work to combat the use of torture in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.

The seven men were arrested during a major military operation in August, 2018, in a set of favelas in northern Rio de Janeiro that involved some 4,000 troops and several hundred civil police. After being beaten and abused on the streets of the favela, they were transferred to the 1st Army Division base in west Rio, where they were tortured during their seventeen-hour detention.

The independent examinations confirmed that the men’s allegations of torture at the hands of the military were “highly consistent” with their injuries and psychological state. 

The presiding judge, Simone de Faria Ferraz, noted the application of the Istanbul Protocol standards in the investigation, and said its findings undermined the credibility of evidence presented by the prosecution that relied on statements by the military.

In a related case last month, three others tortured by the military, including a minor, were also acquitted by the same judge based on similar reasoning that took into account an independent report by a foreign medical expert.

The two cases highlighted the weakness of protections against torture in Brazil, particularly by the military, which was given responsibility for security in Rio de Janeiro by President Michel Temer in February, 2018.

Under international law, torture at the hands of the police or military must be investigated by an impartial body. Yet in Brazil, under a law passed in 2017 only the military has the authority to investigate itself for allegations of torture. Such investigations are extremely rare.

In the case of the seven men, the military prosecutor had earlier announced that the investigation did not find evidence of any crimes committed by the armed forces.

Masha Lisitsyna, who leads anti-torture work at the Justice Initiative said: “The acquittal of torture survivors demonstrates the crucial role that public defenders and judges can play in upholding the rule of law. Now there is an urgent need for an impartial investigation of these torture allegations, including the chain of command, by a body independent from the military themselves.”  

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