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Brazil's police accused of routinely killing suspects

Police officer patrols Rio shanty town - file photo from 2007
Brazilian police are accused of "extrajudicial executions"

Police in Brazil's two biggest cities, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, routinely commit unlawful executions, Human Rights Watch has alleged.

The New York-based group says a two-year investigation found evidence that officers often covered up such killings as justified self-defence.

Authorities in Rio, due to stage the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, are under pressure to reduce violence.

But officials argue the police face often well-armed drug gangs.

Human Rights Watch says a detailed study of 51 cases showed there was credible evidence that police in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro shot alleged criminals and then reported that the victims had died in shootouts while resisting arrest.

Post mortem reports showed that 17 of these victims had been shot at point-blank range, the HRW report said.

"The 51 cases do not represent the totality of potential extrajudicial killings, but are indicative of a much broader problem," HRW said.

Human Rights Watch says government statistics also indicate the scale of the problem.

Police in Sao Paulo and Rio states have killed more than 11,000 people since 2003, while over the past five years there were more police killings in Sao Paulo (2,176) than in South Africa (1,623), which has a higher murder rate.

'Armed combat'

Human Rights Watch says that while some police killings are legitimate acts of self-defence, many others amount to "extra-judicial executions".

The report argues that what is required is more effective policing, not more violence from the police. There was a chronic failure to hold officers to account for murder, it says, and the authorities should set up specialist units that are able to carry out proper investigations.

"There's a system in place where police in many poor neighbourhoods are completely out of control. It's a system of toleration that basically relies on the police to police themselves and they don't do it," said Daniel Wilkinson, Human Right Watch's deputy director for the Americas.

Reacting to the report, a Sao Paulo police statement said that every time someone dies following an armed confrontation with their officers an investigation is opened, and the results are sent to the judicial authorities.

They also pointed out that 50% of criminals involved in confrontations with police were arrested without being harmed, 33% escaped, and 17% were killed.

Human Rights Watch says state officials in Rio have promised a considered response to the report.

Authorities there have highlighted a new community-style policing approach which has been adopted in a small number of favelas or shanty towns, but critics says it needs to be much more extensive.

Officials also argue that critics do not take into account how officers must constantly take on violent drug gangs.

"We have to deal with something few others face: armed combat with drug-traffickers who are equipped with heavy weapons coming from abroad," Rio's state public security director Jose Beltrame told the Associated Press in October.

He was speaking after three police officers died when their helicopter was shot at and brought down in Rio de Janeiro during clashes involving police and drug gangs.



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