on the world: a view on human rights
The corporate sports circus has packed its bags and left town. For one Rio de Janeiro resident, the exigencies of international sports tournaments have exacted a hefty price on his freedom. Rafael Braga Vieira, 28, is the only person convicted following mass social protests that erupted across Brazil in 2013.
Poor, young, illiterate and black, to the authorities he is merely a statistic in the country with the fourth largest prison population in the world, made up predominantly of black men under 30 housed in squalid, severely overcrowded and violent conditions. In October 2016 alone, prison violence claimed around 30 lives.
To others, Rafael Braga has become a symbol of a state that uses violence, repression and prison as a means of social control, particularly of marginalised communities, such as black youth and favela dwellers.
In June 2013 when peaceful protests in Sao Paulo against public transport fare rises were met with violent repression by the police, similar protests were held in other cities, gradually covering a broader range of social problems, including housing, corruption, fair wages and indigenous land rights. The violent state response to this popular social movement paved the way for the militarised and brutal crackdown in the run-up to and during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
On 20 June, over one million marched in over 80 towns and cities across Brazil, with over half a million in Rio de Janeiro alone. The protest turned violent and led to running battles between the police and some demonstrators.
Rafael Braga was not a protester or involved in any social activism. He had spent the day as he often did: searching the streets collecting recyclable cans and materials he could sell for cash at market. It was how he, his mother and his stepfather supported themselves and Braga’s six younger siblings. Braga would often sleep rough for several days in the city centre, collecting his horde of goods in one place before selling them and returning home to the favela of Penha in the north of Rio with his earnings.
That evening, he was approached near his regular sleeping spot by two police officers who arrested him for carrying two bottles of cleaning products – bleach and Pine-Sol disinfectant. Both were sealed. The police charged him with possession of incendiary devices: Molotov cocktails. Braga claims that he did not know about the protest or what Molotov cocktails and black blocs were at the time of his arrest. An official expert report found that the items were not explosive.
In spite of the report, on 2 December he was sentenced to five years in prison for illegal possession of an incendiary device; two unrelated convictions for theft Braga had from 2006 and 2008 were taken into consideration. Demonstrators arrested on 20 June had their cases dismissed. In a country where the wheels of justice turn very slowly, this conviction was unusually obtained within months.
Coupled with his race and poverty, the fact that Braga was not involved in the protest movement made him an easy target as no one knew who he was. It was only after he was convicted that Braga, who had been held on remand in the interim period, had his case taken up by the Institute of Human Rights Defenders (DDH), a civil society association that defends demonstrators. Months after his arrest, his mother Adriana de Oliveira Braga finally learned from the DDH the reason her son had not returned home in June.
An appeal filed in February 2014 was heard in August 2014, after the World Cup had ended, but only saw his sentence reduced by four months. Following his arrest, a support campaign group formed and as well as organising awareness-raising actions and supporting court hearings, it has helped to raise funds for foodstuffs taken to Braga in prison by his mother, and has helped to finance dental care for his sister.
Like other prisoners in Brazil, Braga has suffered overcrowded conditions, beatings by guards and arbitrary disciplinary measures. Following a 2015 visit, the UN criticised the severe overcrowding and ill-treatment and torture of prisoners in Brazilian jails.
One positive for Braga following the appeal judgment was that he was given the right to day release to work outside the prison at a law firm in central Rio for which he was paid wages, which he handed over to his mother to support the family.
That ‘privilege’ came to an end in late October 2014 when his lawyers posted a photo of him on Facebook re-entering the prison alongside graffiti – he had not sprayed – critical of state repression. He was also punished with 10 days in solitary confinement. Braga was allowed to return to work in August 2015.
In December 2015, after having served over half of his sentence, Braga was released under a home detention scheme with electronic tagging to serve the rest of his sentence. This was not the end of his ordeal.
Early in the morning of 12 January 2016, wearing only shorts, flip-flops and his visible electronic tag, Braga went to the neighbourhood bakery to buy bread for his mother. He had only a few coins in his pocket to pay for it. Again, he never returned home. He was stopped outside the bakery by policemen who led him to an alley where they beat him and asked for information about local drug dealers. According to one of his lawyers Lucas Sada, he was threatened with rape. He was then subject once more to arbitrary arrest and taken to the police station.
Once there, the police claim to have found small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and an incendiary device on him. He was charged with drug trafficking. More than one witness who had seen him that morning has said that he was emptyhanded as he headed to the bakery. According to his lawyers his visible tag made him an easy target for arrest. A bail application was rejected and he has remained in jail. Having come to prominence as the only person arrested following the 2013 protests, his arrest ahead of the Rio Olympics was no doubt aimed at deterring protesters.
Rafael Braga Vieira’s story is not unique. There are many young men in a similar situation. The run-up to the Rio Olympics provided human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International the opportunity to shed light on serious issues such as the high rate of police murders, police brutality and arbitrary arrests in the city. The majority of victims of such actions all fit the same profile as Rafael Braga: young, black and male.
According to the HRW report, “Police in the state of Rio de Janeiro have killed […] at least 645 people in 2015. One fifth of all homicides in the city of Rio last year were police killings. Three quarters of those killed by police were black men.” Police killings have reportedly increased since 2014. According to Amnesty, “Negative stereotypes associated with the youth, especially black young men living in favelas and other marginalized areas, have contributed to the trivialization and naturalization of violence.”
The campaign for Rafael Braga has brought together civil society organisations and human rights activists to work to raise these and related issues such as poverty and discrimination. Over 2016, a number of hearings have been held in Rafael Braga’s case. Some evidence in his favour has been excluded. Nonetheless, all the admitted witnesses have been heard and evidence submitted and a judgment is pending. In anticipation of the judgment, activists have planned a month of action in November to take in activities around Brazil and in other countries, including Germany and the USA, and possibly the UK too: