Conviction of Brazilian political prisoner echoes injustice in the U.S.
His case, however, is part of a darker saga that symbolizes the institutionalized racism of Brazil's judicial system...
by Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
Rafael Braga Vieira was sentenced to five years in prison after police arrested him at a large demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on June 20, 2013.
25 years old at the time, Braga was homeless and collecting recyclables to survive. He was completely unaware that a mass protest was even taking place. Raphael was charged with carrying explosives when police found him with bottles of disinfectant and bleach, he was sentenced before the end of the year.
The protests Braga was accused of participating in were known as the “June Revolts”, they became the largest protests in Brazil’s history. Millions took to the streets. Initially the protests were against a 20 cent fare hike in public transportation, but that soon evolved into demands for improvements in public services, particularly education and healthcare. Ultimately, the protesters focused on the immense levels of police violence in both the country at large and that which protesters experienced on the street that month, resulting in dozens injured.
The Rio de Janeiro court’s conviction against Rafael Braga on December 3, 2013, was based on the then 10-year old Brazilian statute of disarmament, which prohibits the carrying or use of an “explosive or incendiary device, without authorization or in breach of legal or regulatory determination.” The problem? According to experts and a technical report from the Rio de Janeiro state bomb squad, the materials found on Rafael had “minimum explosive capacity” and they were absolutely common materials that would not be the first choice for the production of a Molotov cocktail – as they accused Rafael of trying to produce.
Braga was, at the time, the only person sent to prison in connection with the June 2013 protests. His case, however, is part of a darker saga that symbolizes the institutionalized racism of Brazil’s judicial system and the country’s criminalization of poverty. Millions protested, dozens were injured by police or arrested, though no official data is available. Only Rafael Braga was prosecuted and convicted.
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There are countless similar cases in the U.S. where Black people are deemed “suspicious” due to their race and end up assaulted or arrested. In July, 16 people were arrested during a Black Lives Matter march in Rochester, nearly 2 years after another BLM demonstration in the same city with 74 arrests. In April, 11 people ended up arrested in Sacramento in yet another BLM demonstration to express anger for the death of Stephon Clark, who was killed by two police officers that shot at him 20 times.
Rafael remained in jail until December 2015, when a court allowed him to serve out the rest of his term at his mother’s home in Rio, wearing an ankle monitor. A month later, in January 2016, police arrested him again for carrying 0.6 grams of marijuana, 9.3 grams of cocaine and a flare (the kind often used to alert gangs when police enter the community).
Rafael accused the officers of assaulting him and forging evidence — something that is quite common in Brazilian policing; suspects, are typically Black and are often beaten into denouncing drug traffickers or simply framed.
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In April 2017, during Braga’s second trial, the court threw out the sole witness called to his defense (a neighbor who corroborated his version of events) on the grounds that the neighbor had a “friendly relationship” with Braga which rendered them biased. The prosecution’s five witnesses were all police officers with conflicting testimonies. The judge also refused to review video surveillance footage from cameras in the area where he was arrested, ruling that it was “unnecessary for the conclusion of the case.” Braga was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Brazil’s controversial drug laws, sanctioned by former president Lula da Silva, allow the courts to treat defendants unequally. While drug use has been decriminalized, police officers and judges make decisions on a case-by-case basis because the law does not offer clear distinctions between “use” and “trafficking.” One does not have to think hard to conclude that Black people will be constantly accused of trafficking in an extremely racist country – and that’s exactly what data shows.
Brazil has the third largest prison population in the world and over 60% of those prisoners are Black. Brazil is the country with the highest number of deaths by firearms in the world, with 43,200 victims in 2016 alone (71.5% were Black). Data from the app Fogo Cruzado (Crossfire), which aggregates information on shootings based on user-submitted content, points to the unbelievable number of 16 shootings a day in 2017– 5,817 throughout the year. In 2018, the average increased, reaching 22 shootings per day. As we know, the situation is not much better in the U.S., with the second highest number of gun-related deaths. Like Brazil, the U.S. also has a disproportionately high rate of gun-related deaths in Black communities.
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Rafael Braga’s case attracted great attention across Brazil from activists, politicians and various organizations. Similar to the #SayHerName campaign launched in 2015 and ones like it in the U.S., the “30 days for Rafael Braga” campaign, in June 2017, organized by the Institute of Human Rights Defenders (among other civil society organizations) sought to make the Brazilian population aware of the structural racism and criminal justice bias running rampant in the country.
Despite the protests organized after Braga’s second conviction in cities across Brazil and the world, the Brazilian justice system chose to remain oblivious. So much so that in August of 2017 the 1st Criminal Chamber of the Court of Justice of Rio de Janeiro denied a habeas corpus petition made by the defense of Rafael Braga. In jail, due to the poor sanitary conditions, Rafael contracted tuberculosis (a relatively common disease among incarcerated people in Brazil). Only then did the Superior Court of Justice guarantee him, in September 2017, the right to get treatment at his mother’s house, considering that he would not receive adequate treatment in jail, where he should never have been.
His lawyers have appealed to a higher court, as the first two courts refused to respect his rights and guarantee him a fair trial. However, after the treatment, Rafael must return to jail and fulfill his unjust sentence along with thousands of other poor Black people left wrongfully convicted. Rafael Braga is one amongst countless cases of state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies in Brazil, as well as other revolting cases that take place in the U.S. everyday. We must remember to make connections between the injustices that Black people experience across the globe to better inform our strategies of resistance and build stronger solidarity. There is a need for greater social mobilization for the rights of Black people everywhere.
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a freelance journalist, PhD candidate in Human Rights (University of Deusto) and Global Voices Online author.