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Without defence, indigenous Brazilians left to languish in jail

by Karla Mendes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 17 January 2019 08:00 GMT

Outlook from an internal window at Penitenciaria Estadual de Dourados jail in the town of Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil, Aug 23, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Karla Mendes

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With the world's third largest prison population, Brazil's jails are overcrowded and violent but there are mounting concerns the situation is worse for indigenous inmates

By Karla Mendes

DOURADOS, Brazil - The plight of jailed indigenous Brazilians looked unlikely to change under President Jair Bolsonaro, campaigners said, despite a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation backing findings that many were locked up on dubious charges and without a lawyer.

With the world's third largest prison population, Brazil's jails are overcrowded and violent but there are mounting concerns the situation is worse for indigenous inmates who can face unduly long sentences due to no linguistic and legal aid.

On a rarely permitted visit to a prison in Dourados in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to five indigenous prisoners, all of whom said they did not have a lawyer when taken to jail.

The prisoners also said vital medical supplies were withheld, they were threatened with violence by police, and some were forced to confess to crimes they had not committed.

Public defender Neyla Ferreira Mendes said she had examined the proceedings of about 131 jailed indigenous in the 2,400-strong Dourados - and every one lacked an interpreter and an anthropological report, both of which are required by law.

Alan Gomes, a Kaiowa Indian sentenced to 10 years for rape - according to court records seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation - said he had no clue what he was accused of.

"No lawyer accompanied me ... I assumed (responsibility for) a crime I did not commit because they said they would hit me if I did not," he said, recalling police questioning.

"I did not understand what was written in the paper. I did not commit this crime," said Gomes who has served two years in the prison with the largest indigenous population in the state.

The inmates' stories could not be independently corroborated and Manoel Machado da Silva, director of the Penitenciaria Estadual de Dourados jail, said the complaints had no grounding.

"The treatment (of indigenous prisoners) is humanised, we meet all their needs ... medical and social assistance, dental treatment," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


The Ministry of Public Safety would not comment on the allegations made to the Thomson Reuters Foundation in interviews with indigenous inmates, their tribal leaders, U.N. experts and legal representatives.

A spokeswoman said most jails in Brazil are run locally, by states or cities, so the ministry had no jurisdiction over them.

Brazil's prisons are estimated to house more than 700,000 prisoners in a system with capacity for less than 400,000.

Government data from 2016 showed among these there were about 600 indigenous inmates.

But campaigners believe this is an undercount as many indigenous inmates were not identified as such when they entered jail, which made it hard to keep track of them.

Concerns over their welfare has increased since Bolsonaro took office, stripping power over land claim decisions from the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI in his first week in office.

South America's biggest nation has faced repeated accusations of mistreating its indigenous population which numbers about 900,000 in a population of 210 million.

The constitution recognises the rights of indigenous Brazilians but human rights groups say in practice tribal people face ever increasing threats to their land and livelihoods.

Mendes said the fate of indigenous inmates would "likely worsen as a result of Bolsonaro weakening FUNAI and disregarding indigenous cultures".

Marco Antonio Delfino de Almeida, federal prosecutor in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, warned the new administration's stance could influence legal proceedings and fuel the "massive incarceration" of native tribes.

Indigenous inmate Deilo Juca Pedro poses for a photo at Penitenciaria Estadual de Dourados jail in the town of Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil, Aug 23, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Karla Mendes


Erika Yamada, a lawyer and a member of the U.N. Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said discrimination against indigenous people was rife in Brazil's jails with inmates often not given access to lawyers, interpreters, or culturally sensitive treatment.

"There is institutional racism at all levels (of the system) against indigenous people and prisoners," Yamada said.

De Almeida said the lack of interpreters was used to fabricate testimonies, citing an indigenous leader who featured as a witness in more than 100 police investigations. 

"What is the possibility of a person having witnessed more than 100 crimes?" he said. 

Gustavo Menezes, an official from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) government agency, said as well as lacking linguistic and legal help, many indigenous inmates were cut off from their culture and customs in jail.

But he said it was hard for FUNAI to help as many were not recorded as indigenous in jail and many did not have documents.

Mato Grosso do Sul's state prosecutor Claudio Rogerio Ferreira Gomes said rape, drug trafficking and theft were the top crimes of indigenous prisoners and these were often tied to heavy drinking on indigenous reserves.

Gomes was aware of accusations that indigenous people were treated differently in the criminal justice system and said he "usually" adopted the same procedures for everyone.

He said most indigenous prisoners understood charges put to them, and he only adapted his behaviour when defendants did not.

"This differentiated treatment is just for communities more alien to civilisation," he said, referring to those prisoners who neither spoke Portuguese nor lived near an urban area.

Deilo Juca Pedro, 42, said he had served almost 11 years since he was charged with a murder in 2007 that he denied.

"My niece was found dead. As they did not find the perpetrator of the crime, they arrested me," the Kaiowa Indian said. "There is no life in this place. It is very bad."

"But we have to find a way to survive in here. There will be one day that I will get out of here to work again, to have my life as it was before ... have another family. I am a hard worker, not a criminal."

(Reporting by Karla Mendes; Writing and editing by Lyndsay Griffiths, Zoe Tabary and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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