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Rights Groups Condemn Informant Slaying

October 10, 2003

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) _ The slaying of a man who testified about police death squads to a U.N. human rights official was condemned by international rights groups Friday, but barely registered in a country where police abuses are routine.

Almost every day, police operations in crowded shantytowns across Brazil claim lives and create an image of urban warfare between the police and the poor, although many Brazilians believe victims of police killings must have done something wrong.

Groups ranging from the United Nations to Amnesty International deplored Thursday’s killing of Gerson de Jesus Bispo in northeastern Brazil. He was the second person killed after speaking to Asma Jahangir, the United Nations’ special investigator on extrajudicial executions.

Bispo’s killing a day after Jahangir left South America’s largest country ``is unfortunately indicative of the situation″ the U.N. official found during her three-week mission to nine Brazilian cities, said Jose Diaz, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Bispo’s death garnered front-page headlines in Brazil’s largest newspapers, but human rights groups doubted it would generate a domestic outcry.

``There is a culture in Brazil that the way of dealing with a criminal is for that person to die,″ explained Damian Platt, Brazil campaigner for Amnesty International.

Police in Sao Paulo, a sprawling metropolis of 18 million, killed 487 people through June _ a 78 percent increase from the same period last year. In Rio de Janeiro, police killed 815 people through August _ a 40 percent increase.

Acides Ney Inez, who runs a streetside news stand, said Brazilian police often are blamed for being too violent, but he believes only criminals complain about police brutality.

``I didn’t read about this execution case, but no one’s killed by chance,″ said Inez, 35. ``There’s always a good reason.″

Bispo was investigating last year’s killing of his brother and a friend. He met with Jahangir on Sept. 20, and was killed Thursday by motorcycle gunmen in Santo Antonio de Jesus in Bahia state, 1,200 miles northeast of Sao Paulo.

Another person who met with Jahandir _ Flavio Manoel da Silva _ was gunned down Sept. 27.

Jahandir was officially invited to Brazil to investigate police involvement in arbitrary executions. She discovered ``a gruesome picture which is not worthy of a fit, democratic Brazil,″ she said.

Brazilian police deny using death squads, but are well-known for heavy-handed tactics in the lawless shantytowns controlled by armed drug gangs.

When police enter the slums, or favelas, they usually wear black uniforms and body armor and carry automatic weapons while helicopters circle overhead. Some officers say those experiences make them the world’s most experienced urban warriors.

Sao Paulo’s state police ombudsman, Itajiba Farias Ferreira Crava, conceded Friday that there are isolated incidents of police abusing their power, but that offenders who are caught are prosecuted. He said the problem is more widespread outside Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s richest and most populous.

Sao Paulo is unique among Brazil’s 26 states because it has a law designed to punish bad officers, according to the state’s public security department. Nearly 700 have been dismissed so far this year.

A congressional committee had just just begun investigating reports of death squads in the impoverished northeast when Bispo was killed.

Committee members believe most death squads are headed by current or former military police acting on behalf of businessmen, politicians and drug dealers, said committee adviser Marcelo D’Avila.

``These squads, and those who hire them, usually operate in urban areas with a self-appointed mission of eliminating homosexuals, blacks and poor people,″ he said. ``They assume a social cleansing mission.″

The administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has pledged to improve Brazil’s human rights record, but experts say there has been no increase in the number of police prosecuted for crimes since the former union leader took office in January.

``It’s not an easy problem to solve,″ said James Cavallaro of Brazil’s Global Justice Center. ``We’re talking about killer police, professional killers who wear a uniform and get paid by the state.″

Although many middle- and upper-class Brazilians shrug off police killings because they usually happen in poor, distant areas, some say changes are needed.

Fabiana Cesar Gabas stopped working as a surgeon in a Sao Paulo hospital four years ago because she could no longer stand the sight of young men and teenagers with bullet wounds _ many allegedly inflicted by police.

In the early 1990s, hospital workers nicknamed some officers ``Elite Police″ because so many of their alleged victims died from a single shot to the forehead. In later years, she said, victims usually arrived riddled with bullets.

``Right now it’s difficult to know whether to have confidence in the police,″ Gabas said. ``I would say there are good police and corrupt officers, but I don’t know which ones are in the majority.″

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Associated Press writers Michael Astor in Rio de Janeiro, Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Harold Olmos in Brasilia contributed to this report.

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