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UN rights expert urges Brazil to address prison overcrowding and implement measures against torture

BRASILIA (14 August 2015) – United Nations human rights expert Juan E. Méndez today called on the Brazilian federal and state authorities to urgently address the issue of prison overcrowding in the country and show “genuine commitment to implement measures against torture.”

Mr. Méndez call comes at the end of 12-day official visit to Brazil, where he conducted unannounced visits to places of detention such as police stations, pre-trial facilities, penitentiaries, juvenile detention centers, as well as mental health institutions.

“Many of the facilities visited are severely overcrowded – in some instances close to three times their actual capacity,” the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment said. “This leads to chaotic conditions inside the facilities, and greatly impacts on the living conditions of inmates and their access to legal defense, health care, psycho-social support, work and education opportunities, as well as sun, fresh air and recreation.”

Through these visits, the independent expert saw how severe overcrowding generates tension and a violent atmosphere, in which physical and psychological ill-treatment of inmates becomes the norm.

“The use of pepper spray, tear gas, noise bombs and rubber bullets by the prison personnel is frequent, as are severe beatings and kicking,” he said, noting that prison personnel serving inside the penitentiaries are often heavily armed, including with assault rifles, shotguns and hand guns. In one instance, he pointed out, even a teargas and flash-bang grenade launcher.

Through interviews with prisoners in various detention facilities, Mr. Méndez received credible testimonies from inmates of torture and ill-treatment by police during arrest and interrogation. In that respect, he noted with concern “the absence of a robust policy to deal with occurrences of torture, the lack of accountability for them, and the likelihood that this state of affairs will perpetuate, and even exacerbate this practice, both in number and severity.”

The Special Rapporteur welcomed the measures taken, or envisioned, to fight torture and ill-treatment, at various levels of government, such as the establishment of the National Preventive Mechanism following Brazil’s ratification of the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture, the National Committee to Prevent and Combat Torture, as well as a pilot project introducing custody hearings in five states. “However,” he stressed, “more efforts are needed to ensure a nationwide implementation of the safeguards offered by these institutions and procedures.”

Among other measures, the expert recommended the competent Brazilian authorities to immediately expand the application of custody hearings to the entire country, and re-design them to encourage victims to speak up and to allow for effective documentation of torture or ill-treatment. Custody hearings have the benefit of reducing the disproportionately high number of pre-trial inmates (currently 40%) and to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

Mr. Méndez also noted that medico-legal services are available to the judiciary, including for custody hearings; but warned that, as part of each State’s public security department, they lack independence. Moreover, medico-legal staff does not generally have the sufficient training and knowledge to apply international forensic standards. “I fully support the proposed constitutional amendment to grant full independence to all Federal and State forensic services,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur furthermore expressed concern at the proposed constitutional amendment, currently pending in Congress, to lower the age of criminal responsibility of children to 16 years instead of 18, as well as another proposal to extend the maximum length of detention in a socio-educational facility, from the current three years to up to 10 years.

“Prosecuting adolescent offenders as adults would violate Brazil’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the expert said. “In addition, approval of these proposals would worsen the currently already seriously overcrowded penitentiaries throughout Brazil. “

During his official visit to Brasil, Mr. Méndez travelled to Brasilia and the Federal District and the states of Sao Paulo, Sergipe, Alagoas and Maranhão, were he held consultations with high-ranking Federal and State officials, relevant government institutions, civil society organisations and victims’ associations.

The Special Rapporteur will present a final report to the Human Rights Council in March 2016.

Mr. Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. He is currently a Professor of Law at the American University – Washington College of Law and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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