Video of an unarmed Black man in Brazil being asphyxiated with gas in the boot of a police car after getting stopped by highway patrol has sparked fury in the country.
Images of the police stop on Tuesday in Umbauba, in the northeastern state of Sergipe, show the officers pinning Genivaldo de Jesus Santos down on the ground, before forcibly keeping him in the back of their police vehicle as a dense cloud of white smoke emerges from the SUV.
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The 38-year-old handcuffed man – described by his family as suffering from schizophrenia – can be heard screaming and his legs, which stick out of the vehicle, kick for a time, until they eventually stop moving. The officers seem undisturbed by onlookers surrounding them.
Social media erupted over the images that were captured on a phone camera. Dozens of people on Wednesday gathered to protest in Umbauba, where they blocked a road, burned tyres and waved signs calling for justice.
“The population is outraged,” a man can be heard saying in a video of the protest posted on Twitter. “They murdered the guy!” another told the crowd through a loudspeaker.
According to the victim’s family, Santos was approached by the officers while riding his motorcycle through the area. He became nervous when the officers found his schizophrenia medicine in his pocket, Wallyson de Jesus, a nephew of Santos’s, told news website G1.
“They threw some kind of gas inside the trunk and went to the police station, but my uncle was unconscious. They took him to the hospital, but it was already too late,” said de Jesus.
In a statement, the Federal Highway Police said the man had displayed aggressive behaviour and was “actively resisting” the officers who pulled him over. The agents immobilised him, the statement said, then used “instruments of lesser offensive potential” to contain him.
The statement says Santos fell ill as he was being transported to a police precinct and was taken to a hospital, where his death was confirmed.
It did not mention the two officers trapping him inside the back of their car as white gas was seen spewing out, but said the Federal Highway Police had opened an inquiry to probe the officers’ conduct.
A preliminary autopsy concluded the man died of respiratory failure due to “mechanical asphyxia”, George Fernandes, a spokesperson for Sergipe state’s forensic institute, told The Associated Press news agency.
“This obstruction can occur through several factors, and at this first moment it was not possible to establish the immediate cause of the asphyxia, nor how it occurred,” said the institute’s report, according to Reuters news agency.
The forensic institute must submit its final, more in-depth report to the federal police within 10 days.
The incident “shocked Brazilian society due to the level of its brutality, exposing the institution’s lack of preparedness to guarantee that its agents obey basic procedures”, the Brazilian Public Security Forum, an independent group, said in a statement.
President Jair Bolsonaro said he would find out from the Federal Highway Police what happened. He also mentioned a separate incident two weeks ago when a man shot two on-duty highway officers.
The incident comes just days after officers of the highway police participated in an operation in Rio de Janeiro that left more than 20 people dead.
Police have said they had no choice but to use lethal force, but accounts from residents published in local media have raised doubts about that claim.