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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 01:04 GMT 02:04 UK
Brazilian policeman denies massacre
Brazilian police
Police are reported to have shot prisoners point blank
A Brazilian former police chief on trial accused of ordering the country's worst jail massacre has denied the charges, saying his men acted in self defence against 2,000 armed prisoners.

In his opening statement to the court, Colonel Ubiratan Guimaraes, who was in charge of the operation in 1992 to put down the prison riot, said the inmates died in a shoot-out with the police.

If our intention was to commit a massacre, then how come only 111 died?

Colonel Guimaraes
Human rights groups say the trial of Colonel Guimaraes, which had been delayed repeatedly, is a key test of whether Brazil is prepared to clean up the poor human rights record of its military police.

Colonel Guimaraes is accused of giving the orders that led to the massacre of at least 111 inmates during a violent uprising in Latin America's largest prison - the Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo - on 2 October 1992.

He said that at least 14 of the inmates had weapons.

"If our intention was to commit a massacre, then how come only 111 died?" he said.

A statement from Amnesty International said the case, like most major massacres in Brazil, was characterised by cover-ups in the criminal justice system.

"Moreover, the esprit de corps inherent in police investigations of police crimes has led to inefficiencies and wilful negligence as well as destruction of evidence and the alteration of the crime scene," the statement said.

Nine-year delay

Charges were filed against Colonel Guimaraes in 1993, but the case was delayed for years, first because of red tape and later, between 1994 and 1998, because Mr Guimaraes enjoyed immunity as a Sao Paolo state legislator.

He was finally brought to trial on 29 November 2000, but the jury was dissolved after one of seven jurors stepped down for medical reasons.

If convicted, the 57-year-old colonel could receive a symbolic sentence of 30 years for each inmate killed, or 3,330 years.

But in practice under Brazilian law, he can only be sentenced to 30 years. After five years he would be eligible for transfer to a prison farm or work camp.

'Fulfilled duty'

In an interview on Sunday with the Brazilian daily O Globo, Colonel Guimaraes said the prisoners died in a "hellish" exchange of fire between police and armed inmates.

Carandiru prison
Carandiru is Latin America's largest prison
But no police died in the violence.

"Under the same circumstances I would again fulfil my duty like I did," he said.

Witnesses say that police went in with guns blazing after a riot broke out in cell block 9.

Survivors have said the real number of casualties was much higher than the official figure of 111.

Violent prison

Carandiru is known as a violent prison and was the centre of Brazil's most widespread prison riots this year.

It currently holds 8,000 inmates, even though it was built with a capacity for only 3,200. The number of inmates was even higher when the riot broke out in 1992.

Colonel Guimaraes is the first of the 84 police troopers involved in the massacre to be tried.

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See also:

29 Nov 00 | Americas
Brazilian policeman denies massacre
18 Aug 00 | Americas
Brazil jails police peasant killers
18 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Brazil
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