Interview: Nova Brasília – historic judgment

“It’s bad to be convicted, but not complying is shameful,” says researcher on Brazil’s conviction in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

In 1994 and 1995, the community of Nova Brasília, which is part of the Alemão favela complex in Rio de Janeiro, was the stage of two violent massacres. The first, in October 1994, left 13 dead and three victims of sexual violence. In May 1995, another 13 people were killed. On both occasions, all the evidence pointed to the involvement of agents of the State, but the investigations were never properly conducted and nobody was ever punished.

Twenty years later, in 2015, the two cases were heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as a result of a suit filed by Cejil (Center for Justice and International Law) and Iser (Institute for Religious Studies). In May of this year, the Court issued a sentence in which it ordered the Brazilian State to conduct a proper investigation into the murders. It also ruled that the specific inquiry into the cases of sexual violence must be carried out from a gender perspective and that the families of the victims must receive compensation.

The Court also determined that the expressions “opposition” and “resistance” must no longer be used in reports on killings that result from police intervention until an investigation conducted by independent experts confirms the events. In Brazil, these terms are routinely used in police reports to cover up abuse by agents of the State, placing the blame on the victims and limiting the investigations.

In an exclusive interview with Conectas, Pedro Strozenberg, a researcher at Iser who closely followed the progress of the case, talks about the implications of the sentence by the Inter-American Court:

Conectas – How important is the Court ruling?

Pedro Strozenberg – This sentence has a very important historic symbolism, since it recognizes that justice is not served when the police kill people. In essence, the Court calls attention to holding the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary accountable for their inaction or inadequate investigation and handling of violations committed by state security forces.

There are two key aspects worth noting about the ruling: first, the fact that it explicitly refers to police violence as a serious human rights violation in the country; and second, the fact that it explicitly mentions the historic disregard by police external control mechanisms and the degrading treatment of victims of police violence and their families.

In many ways, the sentence exposes a perverse system that treats the killing of young black people from the favelas by agents of the State as something reasonable and natural, as if killing were the rule and not the extreme exception.

What happens if Brazil does not comply with the ruling by the Court?

It could face political sanctions, but I don’t imagine that Brazil will go down that road. It’s bad to be convicted, it causes embarrassment, but not complying is shameful. It would be like saying that the government officially recognizes killing as being compatible with its public agenda. It would be confirmation that it is a violator. I hope we don’t have a Foreign Minister or a Justice Minister who is willing to take on this degrading role.

Does the ruling set a precedent for other cases of police violence and summary execution to be properly investigated?

Brazil’s conviction causes a great deal of embarrassment in the international context. Although the episode occurred in Rio de Janeiro, the obligation to compensate is the federal government’s and we hope this will result in greater responsibility on the matter of killings by the police. The Court will be paying close attention to what happens in Brazil, so we hope that the case of Nova Brasília can be a milestone in turning this repugnant page in Brazilian democracy. I don’t think the Court has set a precedent, but it has stepped up the external oversight of the police and of the justice system.

What will change following the recommendation on the “resistance” classification?

This is an important point, since it about more than just semantics. The sentence calls for consistency and the definitive exclusion of the expressions “resistance” and “opposition” from official reports of killings that result from police intervention. The main point is that killings caused by police intervention should not automatically be considered to have resulted from legitimate confrontation and that any such conclusion should only be made after an investigation conducted by independent experts and specialized units. I think the Court was accurate in its ruling, in its symbolic and reflective content.

What is the message that is conveyed by this ruling?

The sentence exposes an ugly but real chapter of Brazilian and Latin American history. Some 60,000 people are killed every year. Young, poor black people, just like those who are now lending their names to help change the situation.

In some Brazilian states, killings by the police represent more than 25% of all violent deaths. We can’t keep tolerating these routine murders. We need to break this cycle. What’s needed is political determination and courage, a rare combination on the Brazilian public agenda. The ruling by the Court is a wake-up call to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and to the entire criminal justice system.

Personally, however, I think the wider message of this ruling is the emotional recognition of the families who have carried this case for more than twenty years. The families expressed genuine feelings and were able to convey their pain and their strength. In the words of one of the sisters, the boys “didn’t have the chance to pay for the mistakes they may have made”. What’s needed is a dose of indignation, accountability, transparency and participation in these proceedings to come.

Find out more

Receive Conectas updates by email