Intervention in Pedrinhas
NGOs call for federal government action in Maranhão state prison
In a letter to the Brazilian Attorney General, Rodrigo Janot, Conectas, Justiça Global and the Maranhão State Society of Human Rights have called for the federalization of the human rights violations committed in the prison complex of Pedrinhas, in the state of Maranhão. A report released in December by the National Justice Council documented 60 deaths of prisoners in 2013, as well as cases of torture and sexual violence against the relatives of prisoners on visitation days. This crisis, caused primarily by overcrowding and disputes between rival gangs, had already been exposed in October in a document produced by the Maranhão State Public Prosecutor’s Office in conjunction with the Federal Public Defender’s Office.
“We believe that federalization will enable a more speedy and independent investigation, with respect to the legislation that governs the democratic rule of law in Brazil and the international human rights treaties to which the country is a party,” reads the document sent to the Attorney General’s Office.
The organizations are also demanding a federal intervention and pointed out that, since the occupation of the prison by the Military Police ordered by the state government two weeks ago, little information has been available about the situation of the prisoners.
“It is essential that the crimes are investigated quickly so we can identify the real responsibility of the State in the crisis,” said Joisiane Gamba, a lawyer for the Maranhão State Society of Human Rights.
On Monday, January 6, Maranhão Governor Roseana Sarney answered the request for information filed by the Attorney General’s Office in December and accepted the request for assistance made by the Ministry of Justice, which offered 25 places in federal prisons for gang members who operate in
Pedrinhas. In an interview published in the local newspaper O Estado de Maranhão on Sunday (January 5), Sarney blamed the Judiciary for the high numbers of pre-trial prisoners in the state. The Judiciary, meanwhile, blames the executive branch and the shortage of prison places.
While the authorities play the blame game, the crisis in Maranhão persists. In the first few days of 2014, two more murders were registered in Pedrinhas. The case exacerbates the historic human rights violations committed throughout the Brazilian prison system and demonstrates that, while the inefficient policies of mass incarceration remain in place, we are all accomplices in the violence committed against the poor and black majority that fills the country’s prisons.
“The tragedy in Pedrinhas was in the making and could be repeated at any moment in other prison complexes that face similar problems,” said Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas. One example is the Central Prison of Porto Alegre, which was recently the target of a new precautionary measure by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS. There, some 4,500 detainees inhabit a facility designed to hold just 2,000 prisoners.
“The situation in Brazilian prisons has been denounced for years by civil society without concrete measures being taken to resolve the problem. Instead: incarceration rates have only increased, deepening and extending the violations,” added Sandra Carvalho, director of Justiça Global.
The incarceration rate (number of people in prison per 100,000 inhabitants) soared 273% between 1992 and 2012. Today, the country has the world’s fourth largest prison population, behind only the United States, China and Russia. Nearly 43% of Brazil’s 550,000 prisoners have not received a definitive conviction and there is a shortfall of 207,000 prison places.
What the law says
The request filed by the NGOs to the Attorney General’s Office is based on article 109 of the Brazilian Constitution, which was added by Constitutional Amendment No. 45 of 2004. The article asserts that the federal judiciary has the authority to process and judge cases of human rights violations provided for in international treaties or conventions.
Paragraph 5 of the article reads: “In cases of serious human rights violations, and with a view to ensuring compliance with obligations deriving from international human rights treaties to which Brazil is a party, the Brazilian Attorney General may request, before the Superior Court of Justice, and in the course of any of the stages of the inquiry or judicial action, that jurisdiction on the matter be taken to Federal Justice.”