Human Rights

There is no justice for the poor in Brazil

Rafael Braga, Brazil's symbol of institutionalised racism and criminalisation of poverty, is going to prison - again.

Braga believes that he was framed and victimised by the police because he is a poor favelado, writes Garcia [Youtube]

In June 2013, at a time when Brazil was shaken by mass protests against government spending, a homeless young man called Rafael Braga Vieira was arrested in Rio de Janerio for carrying two bottles of cleaning products. 

Among several other arrests that occurred during this period, Braga's was one of the most shocking and unjust.

First of all, Braga was not even participating in the demonstrations at the time of his arrest. He was just unlucky enough to be carrying a bottle of Pinho Sol - a common cleaning product - and a bottle of bleach near a large demonstration.

Carrying plastic bottles was not out of the ordinary for a man who was trying to make a living by collecting tin cans and other discarded objects from the streets. But on that day, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his fate was suddenly sealed when plain-clothed police officers approached him.

After his arrest, Braga was swiftly tried and sentenced to five years in prison for carrying "bottles of flammable materials that can be use to commit acts of vandalism".

The harsh sentence imposed on Braga by a Rio de Janeiro court on December 3, 2013 was based on the statute of disarmament which prohibits the carrying of or use of an "explosive or incendiary device, without authorisation or in breach of legal or regulatory determination". Anyone following Braga's case was surprised to learn that carrying cleaning products was an offence serious enough to land someone in prison in Brazil.

Braga was the first and only person convicted in relation to the June 2013 demonstrations. At the time, several other people - most of them white and middle-class - were arrested for similar offences, but they were quickly released, in most cases on the same day.

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But Braga was poor, black and he did not know anyone powerful - so the police and the justice system decided to make an example of him. His conviction was designed to serve as a deterrent to others.

Questions about impartiality

In his testimony, Braga said that the bottles in his possession were sealed and full. But the bottles were open and only half full when they were presented to the judge as evidence - they looked like they were about to be used as Molotov cocktails.

Since his initial arrest in June 2013, Braga lives a saga that, to many, symbolises injustice, institutionalised racism and the criminalisation of poverty in Brazil.

We do not know whether Braga's claims about the condition of those bottles are true, but even if those bottles were already open, there is not enough evidence to suggest that Braga was going to use them as "explosive devices". A technical report by Rio de Janeiro state's bomb squad concluded that the cleaning products Braga was carrying at the time of his arrest had "minimum explosive capacity", partly because the bottles were made of plastic, while Molotov cocktails are normally made using glass bottles.

Activists tried to argue that these discrepancies in the prosecution's case against Braga suggested that the police tampered with evidence to secure his conviction. But their reasoning had little effect.

Braga, who continues to deny any involvement in the protests, remained in jail for more than two years. Eventually, in December 2015, a court allowed him to serve the rest of his term at home in Rio, wearing an electronic tag.

But Braga's problems with Brazil's justice system did not come to an end after he was released from prison. Only a month later, he was arrested again as he walked towards a bakery in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the Penha neighborhood, north of Rio, where his family lives.

A second arrest

Police officers announced that they had found 0.6 grams of marijuana and 9.3 grams of cocaine on his person at the time of the arrest. They said that they confiscated a firework during the arrest - an item commonly used by drug traffickers to alert each other about security forces approaching a favela.

Braga claims that the police forged the evidence against him, a claim corroborated by the fact that the prosecution's five witnesses, all police officers, gave conflicting testimonies during the hearings. The court threw out the only witness called in Braga's defence - a neighbour who backed his version of events - on the grounds that the he had a "family relationship" with Braga. During the hearings, requests by the defence to access data from Braga's electronic tag and the police patrol car's cameras were denied.

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On April 20, 2017, Braga was sentenced to 11 years and 3 months in prison on charges of drug trafficking and association with drug trafficking. He was also ordered to pay $530.

Whether the evidence against Braga was forged or not, Brazilian activists denounce the disproportionality of the sentence he received.

On social media, activists compared  Braga's case with the famous case of the Perrella family helicopter. In December 2013, the Brazilian Federal Police seized a helicopter loaded with 440kg of cocaine. The helicopter in question belonged to Gustavo Perrella, a state representative in Minas Gerais, who is the son of Senator Zeze Perrella. Despite strong indications of involvement, both Gustavo and Zeze Perrella claimed to know nothing about the drugs. Police arrested the helicopter pilot, an employee of the Perrella family, and charged him with drug trafficking, but the Perrellas were not prosecuted.

Councilman David Miranda was among those who made a comparison between the cases of Braga and the Perrella family and questioned the impartiality of the Brazilian justice system. "Free Rafael Braga," he tweeted.

Many other lawyers, politicians and activists commenting on Braga's conviction argued that the structural racism in Brazil played an important role in his conviction.

Pedro Abramovay, a former national secretary of justice, for example, said in a Facebook post that if "Rafael was white he would be free". Braga "is a political prisoner of a racist justice [system]", he added.

Criminalisation of the poor and the black

Today Brazil has the world's fourth largest prison population.

The latest official data indicates that black people are significantly over represented in Brazil's prisons and 95 percent of the country's inmates are poor. Two-thirds have not even completed primary education. 

Due to poverty, lack of education and their place at the margins of society, Brazil's prison inmates, such as Braga, have little political influence and as a result have little chance of putting an end to the injustices that they are facing.

READ MORE: Brazil\'s prisons - A battleground in the drug wars

Braga believes that he was framed and victimised by the police only because he iss a poor favelado - someone who lives in a shantytown.

In spite of the intense support he received from the Brazilian public, Braga continues to be the victim of repeated injustices and irregularities on the part of the police authorities and the Brazilian judicial system.

Since his initial arrest in June 2013, Braga lives a saga that, to many, symbolises injustice, institutionalised racism and the criminalisation of poverty in Brazil.

And it does not look like Braga, and thousands of other people like him, are going to find any real justice in their country's courtrooms any time soon. 

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist and a PhD candidate in Human Rights at the University of Deusto in Spain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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