In 2017, Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s most violent state: 2,723 intentional homicides were reported in the first six months of the year alone, which was 10.2% higher than in the same period in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of robberies resulting in death rose by 21.2 percentage points.
Moisés Pérez Mok
The most significant increase, however, was in killings resulting from so-called “acts of resistance” to police intervention. A rise of 45.3% saw the number of recorded cases increase from 400 to 581.
Statistics suggest that the Brazilian police kill nine people per day on average, resulting in a mortality rate of 1.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, which is considerably higher than that of countries such as Honduras (1.2) and South Africa (1.1). On the other hand, the number of police officers who are killed while on active duty and outside of working hours is also high in Brazil and in Rio in particular, where over 110 members of the military police were killed during 2017.
However, despite this alarming situation, President Michel Temer approved a draft law in October that would exempt intentional homicides of civilians by the Brazilian military from being judged in civilian courts – an act that has been interpreted as the granting of a “licence to kill”.
Passed by the Federal Senate with 39 votes in favour and eight against, and promulgated in the Official Journal of the Union in the middle of the month in question, the decree states that intentional homicides perpetrated against civilians by members of the armed forces will be tried in military courts in three specific situations.
T he first of these situations is during operations to keep the peace and maintain law and order, such as the scenario that unfolded in Rio de Janeiro this year; this also applies when personnel are carrying out orders issued by the President of the Republic or the Defence Minister, and during efforts to safeguard the security of an institution or a military mission. In practice, the approved draft is a “licence to kill” that legitimises actions taken by the armed forces against the population, according to political expert Gabriel Elias.
Elias, who is also an analyst of social movements at the Brazilian Criminal Sciences Institute, believes that it represents a step backwards towards the era of the civic-military dictatorship and a “measure that is more symbolic than effective”.
Temer’s promulgation of the change in the Military Penal Code disregarded an official letter sent by the National Human Rights Council (NHRC) calling for him to veto the proposal outright on the basis that it undermined the democratic rule of law and could boost extrajudicial executions carried out by the military.
In light of their composition and structure, argued the NHRC, military courts are not sufficiently impartial to try serious crimes committed against civilians by the military.
On this basis, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for South America and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also expressed their “deep concern” about this subject.
In a memo, the organisations noted that the judgement by military tribunals of complaints of violations committed against civilians by military personnel decreases the likelihood of an independent and impartial investigation being carried out by judicial authorities with no link to the chain of command within the security forces themselves.
Military courts should barely try crimes or rule-breaking within the military, signalled OHCHR representative Amerigo Incalcaterra, who warned that the extension of the jurisdiction of military tribunals would undermine the principle of equality before the law and relativize the guarantee of due legal process.
Concerns for the UN
The United Nations system in Brazil, especially UN Women, has also expressed its concern in recent months in light of “alarming and unacceptable data relating to violence against Brazilian women and girls, especially those of African descent”.
The entity put out a declaration in this regard about the murder, in Rio itself, of a black girl aged 13 who was caught in cross-fire while engaging in academic activities.
The text cites statistics from the Map of Violence 2015, which show that there has been a 191% increase in the victimisation of black women and girls in the last decade. Over the same period, the number of homicides of people of African descent rose by 54%, from 1,864 to 2,875.
On the other hand, a survey carried out recently in Rio de Janeiro by the Dialog Institute showed that violence is far from being a phenomenon that only affects major Brazilian cities.
In fact, between 2005 and 2015, the homicide rate rose by 107.4% in small cities of between 20,000 and 100,000 inhabitants, particularly in the north and north-east of the country. (PL)