U.N. urges probe of Brazil prison violence after video of beheaded inmates

by Adriana Brasileiro | @Adribras | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 January 2014 09:36 GMT

A prisoner from the Pedrinhas prison is carried to receive medical help after he was injured during a fight between rival gangs inside the jail, in Sao Luiz, capital of Maranhão state, on Jan. 8, 2014. The recent posting on a major Brazilian news website of a video filmed on Dec. 17 by Pedrinhas prisoners of the decapitated and tortured bodies of rival inmates inside the jail has highlighted some of the problems present in the country's prison system which houses nearly twice as many prisoners as its capacity, according to official statistics. REUTERS/Douglas Cunha/O Estado do Maranhão

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Grisly video draws attention to overcrowding, gang rivalry and uncontrolled violence in northeastern Maranhão state’s prisons

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United Nations urged the Brazilian government to investigate the killings of inmates at the Pedrinhas Penitentiary Complex in northeastern Maranhão state after a video surfaced this week showing the decapitated bodies of three prisoners.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern at the “dire state” of prisons in Brazil, and called on authorities to take immediate action to restore order at Pedrinhas and in other prisons in Brazil, to reduce overcrowding and “provide dignified conditions for those deprived of liberty”, according to a Jan. 8 statement.

A video allegedly recorded on Dec. 17, and posted on the website of Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo on Jan. 7, showed gory scenes of inmates posing with the bodies and detached heads of three fellow prisoners. Sindispem, a prison-workers’ union in Maranhão state, said it sent the video to the newspaper to draw attention to human rights violations happening inside the prison and the lack of investment by the state government.

“The grisly crimes caught on camera are part of a broader problem of uncontrolled violence in Maranhão’s prisons,” Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The state urgently needs to investigate these crimes, restore order in the prisons, and ensure the inmates’ safety.”

Since January 2013, at least 62 inmates have been killed at Pedrinhas complex, which has a capacity for 1,700 prisoners but currently houses 2,500 men, according to Brazil’s National Justice Council (CNJ).

Council Judge Douglas Martins on Dec. 20 inspected the prison and reported that female visitors were often raped by inmates of rival gangs. The lack of space forced wives to meet their husbands in open pavilions during conjugal visits, where they were attacked by other prisoners, according to the judge’s report. Other inmates offered sexual favors by their own female family members to the leaders of gangs as a way to guarantee protection inside the jail, the report added.

Roseana Sarney, the state governor, said this week the judge’s report is “full of lies” and is being used to “discredit all the measures that have been taken by the state” to improve conditions in prisons. She also said the state has invested 131 million reais ($55 million) in its prisons since 2009.

Maranhão has the second-worst Human Development Index among Brazil’s 27 states, and has been ruled by the Sarney family for nearly five decades. Per capita income, at 348 reais ($146.20) per month, is the lowest in Brazil, and only 6.5 percent of the state’s municipalities have treated sewage. Nearly 21 percent of Maranhão residents are illiterate, compared with the national average of 8.7 percent, according to Brazil’s statistics institute IBGE.

On Dec. 16, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made a request for precautionary measures and asked the government to take steps to prevent the loss of life, reduce overcrowding and investigate the incidents at Pedrinhas.

Eleven days later, the Maranhão state police force took control of six detention centres, including the Pedrinhas prison complex. In retaliation, criminal gangs in the capital São Luis fired at police stations with machine guns and set fire to crowded city buses, fatally injuring a 6-year-old girl aboard one of the buses.

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