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Girl's abuse in men's jail not rare

The Brazilian, 15, was raped and tortured. Para state has 132 jails -- and just six cells for women.

October 05, 2008|Michael Astor | Associated Press

ABAETETUBA, BRAZIL — A 15-year-old girl arrested on petty theft charges was left for weeks in a jail cell with 21 men, who raped her, tortured her and allowed her food only in exchange for sex.

Her screams could be heard from the street. Yet police refused to act, and it took a tip to the local media to finally free her.

Ten police and prison officials and two inmates face up to 20 years in jail if convicted, and a verdict in the trial is expected this month. But nearly a year after the crime, the most shocking element is how normal the girl's plight seems to many in the sweltering port city of 78,000 at the mouth of the Amazon where she was imprisoned.

After the scandal came to light, Para state Gov. Ana Julia Carepa acknowledged that girls were being arrested in the state expressly to provide sexual gratification for prisoners, "an unfortunate practice that regrettably has been occurring for some time."

After the uproar over the case, Carepa, congressmen, and even the president vowed to tackle the problems that caused the assault: callous, corrupt police and a jail system with few separate cells for women. The jailhouse was demolished.

Yet Para, a jungle state twice the size of France, still has only six separate cells for women at its 132 jails.

Judge Clarice Maria de Andrade, who approved the girl's imprisonment, was transferred to another jurisdiction without even a censure. It's also far from clear whether the current judicial inquiry, held behind closed doors because the victim was a minor, will yield any convictions.

"It just happened to be this girl, but it could have been any one of hundreds here in this city," said Roman Catholic Bishop Flavio Giovenale, who has received death threats for speaking out against police involved in corruption and organized crime.

Giovenale says such abuses are so routine in Abaetetuba that when the child welfare group Guardian Council told the police chief about the underage girl who was locked in the jail, he didn't want to release her.

The chief is under judicial investigation and not speaking publicly about the jailing. Guardian Council went to the local media with the story.

"It was her third time in jail; the only difference was this time someone noticed," said Selma Pinheiro Serrano, a 23-year-old prostitute who knew the girl.

Serrano says her story is much like that of the victim, who is not being identified because she was sexually assaulted. Both come from homes where stepfathers abused them, forcing them out onto the streets to live among prostitutes, crooks and crack dealers.

Unemployment in Abaetetuba stands around 70%, and few schools go beyond fifth grade.

Drug dealing and prostitution often lure local teens, also leaving them vulnerable to police abuse.

Carepa pledged then to try to stop it. But while the state is working on new jailhouses, it has mostly transferred women to other prisons, a move Amnesty International says improves conditions but leaves them farther from loved ones.

Abaetetuba is a major transshipment point for cocaine arriving from Colombia and heading off to Suriname and Guyana to the north. The maze of houses on stilts branching out from the town square is littered with drug spots, where a hit of cocaine paste sells for $3.

"A 10-year-old running drugs can earn enough to feed his family," said social worker Gorette Correia Sarges. "If that's the case, the parents aren't likely to interfere."

Many use the upper stories of the tumbling clapboard houses along the docks as brothels.

Young girls in flip-flops, skimpy shorts and spandex tops sell their bodies to passing boatmen for as little as $6.

Others travel by canoe to anchored ships loading up with aluminum, where they can get as much as $12.

It was in these environs that the 15-year-old victim was arrested for breaking into a house on Oct. 21, 2007.

Days after the scandal broke, reports of other women jailed with men began popping up across Brazil -- most notably a 23-year-old woman forced to share a cell with 70 men in Paraopebas in southern Para.

None of the girls interviewed along Abaetetuba's docks said they had been locked in a cell full of men, though several could describe the jail where the girl was kept and a corridor without a toilet used to hold women.

Nor did many of the girls express sympathy for the victim, because she was a thief -- a line they say they would never cross.

Andre Franzini, coordinator of the Catholic Church's Youth Pastoral, says that's not true.

"Lots of these kids rob. The girl's problem was she kept getting caught," he said.

When she was jailed, no one noticed she was missing because her parents were separated and living out of town, Franzini said.

Besides being raped repeatedly, the girl said, she was tortured with burning cigarettes held to her fingers and bare feet, according to the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. Jailers shaved her head to disguise her as a boy in a cell with men.

Franzini went with the girl after her release to talk with prosecutors and later to the airport where she was flown to the nation's capital, Brasilia, where she was put in a witness protection program.

"She had to tell and retell her story to various prosecutors, and every time her story was consistent. She said who shaved her head to make her look like a boy, who had sex with her and who didn't, and who burned her feet and fingers with cigarettes," Franzini said.

He hears the victim has successfully completed a detox program, and is off drugs and back in school at a secret location.

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