In March, two OSI grantees, Conectas Human Rights and Justiça Global, organized an event on human rights violations in Brazil’s prison system during the regular session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Partnering with the Human Rights Council of the State of Espírito Santo, the event drew international attention to the horrific conditions facing prisoners and pretrial detainees in Espírito Santo, including over-crowding, murder, dismemberment, and ill-treatment. Attendees included: Brazilian government and UN officials, diplomats, and other NGOs.
The presentations by Conectas and Justiça Global built on their February visit to the state which uncovered that at least 500 men were being held in metal cargo containers, where temperatures can reach 50°C (122 °F). At one police station, they also found 235 men detained in cells which only had capacity for 36 people. Local human rights defenders who have denounced this situation for years live under constant threat of attacks.
"It was clear from the data presented by the Espírito Santo state representatives that their state government, besides not expanding the capacity of its prison system, has taken no measures to establish accountability for the extremely serious violations taking place in the state over the past decade. In this respect, it should be underlined that there has been also clear neglect on the part of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary in the state of Espírito Santo", according to Oscar Vilhena Vieira, legal director of Conectas.
The event received extensive media coverage in Brazil as well as in the international press.
At the same time the event was underway in Geneva, there was a demonstration outside the Espírito Santo State Government offices, in which 150 people, including representatives from local human rights organizations, university lecturers, students and intellectuals, marched to the State Justice Department to hold talks with state authorities.
As a result of these efforts, the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice issued a groundbreaking decision mandating the immediate removal of detainees from the metal cargo containers.
A spokesperson for the case in the Supreme Court, Minister Nilson Naves, concluded that, "this is inhumane imprisonment which openly disregards constitutional guarantees…not to mention international treaties and conventions on human rights." He further observed that the federal Constitution guarantees prisoners the right to physical and moral integrity and that holding people in metal containers is an illegal practice. This decision will benefit numerous detainees living under inhumane conditions and is particularly significant given that many past accusations presented by NGOs had remained unanswered.
OSI's Latin America Program has supported the international human rights work of Conectas since 2006. In 2009, OSI's Global Criminal Justice Fund began supporting Conectas' work litigating on conditions in pretrial detention in Brazil. GCJF also funds Justiça Global's efforts in this area. Both organizations have shown the impact of working simultaneously and creatively at global, national, and local levels in order to pressure successfully for more rights-respecting criminal justice policies.