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Top human rights court finds Brazil responsible in deadly fireworks blast

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 18:50 GMT

FILE PHOTO: View of The Inter-American Court of Human Right is pictured in San Jose December 3, 2004. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

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Most victims of the deadly 1998 factory explosion were women and children, making it the worst fireworks accident in Brazilian history

By Fabio Teixeira

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The top human rights court in the Americas found Brazil guilty of violating victims' rights in a deadly 1998 explosion at a fireworks factory, ordering an overhaul of safety policies at pyrotechnic plants, experts said on Wednesday.

The ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, made public on Monday, said the government failed to take any measures to inspect the factory prior to the explosion, considered the worst fireworks accident in Brazilian history.

The 1998 blast in Santo Antonio de Jesus, in the northeastern state of Bahia, killed 64 people.

Most of the victims were women, four of whom were pregnant, and 23 were children. Six people were injured.

The government must pay damages to survivors and families of the dead as well as beef up inspections in fireworks factories, provide social and psychological help to the community and present a progress report on a Senate bill that would improve conditions at firework manufacturers.

"They are euphoric (about the decision)," said Raphaela Lopes of Justiça Global, a legal non-profit that represented the families.

"This event has deeply scarred that community, especially because of the lack of support from the state."

As the judicial arm of the 35-member Organization of American States, the court hears cases of human rights abuses in Latin America and can order governments to investigate crimes and compensate victims.

In a statement, Brazil's government denied being negligent and did not confirm if it would comply with the court's sentence.

"The Brazilian State is evaluating the measures to be adopted and does not comment on the procedural strategy," said the office of Brazil's attorney general in a statement.

Experts said they believe Brazil will comply with the ruling, as it has in the past, but that the payment of damages will happen much sooner than substantive policy changes such as increased inspections.

"It depends on the political will of a government that in theory is expected to respect human rights," said Beatriz Galli, a director at Center for Justice and International Law, a non-profit.

The families of victims and the survivors - who have waited 22 years for a settlement - will be paid damages of more than $100,000 per family.

Given the demographics and socioeconomics of the region, the production of fireworks in Bahia employs many women, most of whom are Black, said Sonia Marise Tomasoni, a researcher at Bahia's state university that studies fireworks production in the region.

The making of fireworks is often informal, with workers paid low wages for dangerous work in remote areas where labor inspections are rare.

"Conditions have improved since the accident," said Tomasoni. "But it still is an activity that puts women and children at risk."

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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