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Campaign to End Police Torture Gets Off to a Tepid Start in Brazil

Rights: After a highly critical U.N. report, the government launches a public awareness drive. Critics call the ads a poor substitute for reforms and prosecutions.

November 25, 2001|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO DE JANEIRO — Fabio de Almeida Ramos is a hulking 25-year-old with long eyelashes and a childlike gentleness that has somehow survived a horrific visit to one this city's more notorious prisons.

Reluctantly, he tells the story of how five policemen beat him with sticks, how they suspended him in the air by the back of his knees with his wrists tied to his ankles, a torture known as "the parrot's perch."

"Things happened that I can't talk about," he abruptly announces. A long and painful silence follows. He purses his lips and stares at the floor. He has nothing more to say.

That Ramos, a former drug dealer, will speak at all about the three days and nights he spent being brutalized by the police is itself a mark of progress. For the poor in Brazil, torture is a not-unexpected--but rarely discussed--outcome of a run-in with the authorities.

Only now, in the wake of a highly critical United Nations report, is the Brazilian government acknowledging that the practice is widespread. Last month, the government began airing the first of a series of anti-torture public service announcements.

Debate Over Outcome of TV Campaign

In the same format used in the United States and elsewhere to advocate the use of seat belts and to discourage drunk driving, the 30-second television spots convey a simple message: It's wrong for the police to beat people, even prisoners who may have broken the law.

"Torture is a crime," the ad declares, as a fictitious passerby hears a man screaming in a nondescript government building. "Denounce it." A hotline's phone number runs across the screen.

Whether the campaign will change the behavior of the untold number of police officers and jailers who are said to torture their charges is a matter of sharp debate here. For human rights activists, the ads are a poor substitute for the seriously needed reforms of a judicial system in which torture has become a common police practice.

"When you know who the people are who are conducting torture, you don't run a public relations campaign," said James Cavallaro of the Global Justice Center, which is based in Rio de Janeiro. "You investigate those people. You prosecute them."

Early this month, officials in Sao Paulo announced the first prosecution of the campaign, involving 18 workers at a juvenile detention center in the city. The facility was profiled in a study on torture in Brazil released last month by Amnesty International. The report documented more than 1,000 beatings in Brazilian juvenile detention facilities.

"What were once the weapons of political repression have become the tools of everyday policing," the report said.

'Dangerous Classes' Are the Victims

Before Brazil returned to democracy in 1985, the military tortured intellectuals and activists who were seen as threats to the regime. In the years since, the practice has continued against what are known here as "the dangerous classes," a derogatory term for the poor and blacks.

"If you're white, or if you're middle or upper class, you're part of the 'non-torturable' classes," Cavallaro said. "Everyone else is a torturaveis," slang for a "torturable" one.

Human rights activists see the government campaign as a tepid response to the international embarrassment heaped upon Brazil after the United Nations' special rapporteur for torture, Nigel Rodley, toured the nation's jails and prisons earlier this year and issued a scathing report.

"Torture and similar ill treatment are meted out on a widespread and systematic basis," Rodley wrote.

The U.N. study, released in April, details 348 cases of torture in 18 Brazilian states. During three weeks of visits to dozens of jails, prisons and other facilities, Rodley met many inmates who bore bruises, cuts and other marks of beatings and tortures.

Others told of receiving electric shocks, or of having hoses placed in their throats and water forced into their lungs until they were on the brink of drowning.

At more than one facility, the U.N. investigator said, he found instruments of torture, including sticks marked with sayings such as "Snuggle up to me."

And in a hint of how deeply rooted torture is in Brazilian society and history, Rodley found evidence that some officers beat prisoners with an instrument used to punish slaves--palmatorias, wooden sticks in the shape of large flat spoon for striking the palms and feet.

U.N. Report Lists 31 Recommendations

Rodley concluded his report with 31 recommendations for action by authorities here. "The top federal and state political leaders need to declare unambiguously that they will not tolerate torture or other ill treatment by public officials," he said. "They need to take vigorous measures . . . to make clear that the culture of impunity will end."

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