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Prison for Homeless Man Carrying Cleaning Products During Protests in Brazil

[All links lead to Portuguese-language webpages unless otherwise noted.]

Rafael Braga Vieira, a homeless man from Rio de Janeiro, was sentenced to five years in prison for carrying a bottle of “Pinho Sol” disinfectant and bleach while a demonstration was taking place on June 20, 2013.

The Rio de Janeiro court's decision on December 3 was based on the 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” (Item III, Article 16 of that statute of the federal law in force since 2003).

According to the page of the Institute of Human Rights Defenders on Facebook, Braga Vieira only found out that he had been sentenced to five years in prison through the organization Institute of Human Rights Defenders, not through the court that sentenced him. The institute informed Braga Vieira during a visit on December 7 to the prison in which he has been incarcerated throughout the trial, and stated on Facebook that from then on that they would represent him.

In June this year, Brazil was shaken by a wave of protests [en] that became known as the Vinegar Revolt [en], in reference to the liquid widely used by journalists and protesters to curb the effects of tear gas used in abundance by police. Amid hundreds of arbitrary arrests both in June and in the subsequent months, Braga Vieira was the first to be convicted by a court and forced to serve time.

Two days after the conviction, award-winning journalist Ana Aranha wrote on the blog 3 por 4:

[Rafael] foi preso quando saia da loja abandonada [em junho] onde morava há um mês e onde pegara os dois frascos de limpeza. No laudo do esquadrão antibomba, a Polícia Civil apontou que os produtos tinham “ínfima possibilidade de funcionar como coquetel molotov”. Quando o caso chegou ao Ministério Público, as garrafas foram descritas pelo promotor responsável pela acusação como “material incendiário”. Até que o juiz Guilherem Schilling Pollo Duarte determinou que “uma das garrafas tinha mínima aptidão para funcionar como coquetel molotov” e condenou Rafael a quase seis anos de prisão.

[Rafael] was arrested when he left the abandoned store [in June] where he lived for a month and from where he picked up the two bottles of cleaning product. In the report of the bomb squad, Civil Police have found that the products had “tiny possibility to work as a cocktail molotov.” When the case came to prosecutors, the bottles were described by the prosecutor responsible for the case as “incendiary material”. Judge Guilherem Schilling Pollo Duarte determined that “one of the bottles had minimal ability to function as a molotov cocktail” and condemned Rafael to nearly six years in prison.

Aranha also commented on the absurdity of the situation – that we only know Braga Vieira through “fragments of official records”, not forgetting that “abuses and illegalities committed by military police during the protests were repeatedly caught, recorded and published”:

A repressão violenta a manifestações deveria ser, em si, algo inaceitável em um país democrático, mas o caso de Rafael tem um elemento ainda mais surreal: nós sequer sabemos se ele fazia parte do protesto.

The violent repression of demonstrations should be, in itself, unacceptable in a democratic country, but the case of Rafael has an even more surreal element: we don't even know if he was part of the protest.

The same violent police who used brutal tactics against protesters that day that Braga Vieira was arrested (Global Voices reported [en] on June 20) have not had their testimony questioned by the judge who sentenced Braga Vieira, according to collective Rio na Rua (Rio on the street):”

O juiz argumentou que “as testemunhas são pessoas idôneas, isentas e não têm qualquer interesse pessoal em incriminar o réu”, contrastando com a defesa de Rafael, que, segundo Duarte, “declarou uma versão pueril e inverosímil, no sentido de que teria encontrado as duas garrafas lacradas, ambas em uma loja abandonada, e resolveu tirá-las dali”.

The judge argued that “witnesses are people with a reputation, unbiased and with no personal interest in incriminating the defendant,” contrasting with the defense of Rafael, who, according to Duarte, “gave a puerile and implausible version, in which he would have found the two sealed bottles, both in an abandoned store, and decided to take them away.”

Marcos Romão wrote on the blog Mamapress about the charges hanging over Braga Vieira in early November:

O MP afirma que o preso “se prevaleceu de um momento de comoção nacional, de protestos legítimos da sociedade brasileira no exercício de sua cidadania, para de forma covarde espalhar o terror na cidade, visando incendiar prédios comerciais, cenas estas que presenciamos de forma exaustiva nos noticiários”

The MP [prosecutors office] said that the prisoner “has prevailed in a time of national upheaval, of the legitimate protests of Brazilian society in exercising their citizenship, in order to spread terror in the city in a cowardly way, aiming to set fire to commercial buildings, scenes we have exhaustively witnessed in the news”

Journalist Piero Locatelli, also arrested on June 13 just before a demonstration in Sao Paulo accused of “carrying vinegar”, was the first to slam the sentencing, which occurred on December 3, in an article in Carta Capital magazine.

In the same article, Locatelli pointed out contradictions in the report, such as the fact that there was no cloth in the mouth of the bottle and that plastic containers couldn't serve as firebombs “since they don't shatter when breaking on the ground”:

Negro, morador de rua e catador de latinhas, Vieira é o primeiro condenado dos protestos de junho no Estado. Com 26 anos de idade, Vieira já havia sido preso duas vezes por roubo, em 2006 e 2008, e cumpriu as penas completas. Ainda cabem recursos a instâncias superiores, e a defesa não se pronunciou sobre o caso. O morador de rua deverá continuar preso no complexo presidiário de Japeri, município na região metropolitana do Rio, devido ao pedido de prisão cautelar feito pelo mesmo juiz.

Black, homeless and a can collector, Vieira is the first to be sentenced after the June protests in the state. 26-year-old Vieira had already been arrested twice for theft in 2006 and 2008, and served the full sentences. There will still be an appeal in the higher courts, Braga Vieira's defense attorneys have not commented on the sentencing. The homeless man should remain a prisoner in the Japeri prison complex, in the metropolitan region of Rio, due to the request for protective arrest made ​​by the same judge.

Anonymous Rio, which had demanded Braga Vieira's release since the first day of November for being imprisoned without trial since June, also reacted to the sentence pointing to social inequality in Brazil, a country with the fourth largest prison population [en] in the world:

Essa é a cara da desigualdade social e da (in)justiça brasileira. É essa a cara do sistema carcerário brasileiro, a cara da intensificação da desigualdade social, da falta de critério. [...]

A população carcerária no Brasil é formada basicamente por jovens, pobres, negros, homens e com baixo nível de escolaridade. Os dados estatísticas de 2008 do Departamento penitenciário nacional indicam que mais da metade dos presos tem menos de trinta anos; 95% são pobres, 93,88% são do sexo masculino, dois terços não completaram o ensino fundamental e também dois terços são negros.

This is the face of social inequality and the Brazilian (in)justice. This is the face of the Brazilian prison system, the face of intensifying social inequality, of the lack of criteria. [...]

The prison population in Brazil is basically made ​​up of young, poor, black men with low levels of schooling. The 2008 statistics data from the National Penitentiary Department indicate that more than half of the inmates are under 30, 95 percent are poor, 93.88 percent are male, two-thirds had not completed elementary school and also two-thirds are black.

The collective Ocupa Câmara Rio (Occupy Rio Chamber) repudiated the sentence on Facebook:

Rafael não representa ameaça a segurança pública, como quiseram supor. Ele é, junto com tantos outros seres precarizados e excluídos, a imagem de um sistema que não dá certo, que faz com que pessoas vivam nas ruas, nômades marginalizados do submundo, do sub-urbano, do sub-humano. Rafael buscava sua dignidade catando latinhas e procurando um local limpo e seguro para passar as noites.

Poster calling for freedom of Baiano and Rafael. "This is Jair, and his unseparable megaphone. Unfortunately we don't have any photos of Rafael."

Poster calling for freedom for Baiano and Rafael shared on the blog of Coletivo das Lutas. The caption in the blog reads: “This is Jair, and his unseparable megaphone. Unfortunately we don't have any photos of Rafael.” 

Rafael poses no threat to public safety, as they wanted to assume. He is, along with many other precarious and marginalized beings, the image of a system that does not work, that causes people to live on the streets, marginalized nomads of the underworld, sub-urban, sub-human. Rafael sought dignity picking up cans and looking for a clean and safe place to spend his nights.

The collective Das Lutas (Of the Struggle) recalled in a post prior to the sentencing of Rafael that he was not the only prisoner from the protests. Others, like Jair Seixas Rodrigues, better known as “Baiano”, who is a member of the International Front of Homeless People (FIST), also had their liberty arbitrarily suppressed during the demonstrations. Baiano is awaiting trial and could face the same fate as Braga Vieira, prison (Update: Baiano was released from prision on December 19):

[Baiano] foi preso no dia 15 de outubro (…) enquanto estava acompanhando a manifestação ao lado de advogados do DDH. Chamaram Jair pelo nome e lhe deram voz de prisão, sem flagrantes, sem motivos. Foi acusado de associação criminosa armada, sem que nada houvesse para configurar a acusação.

[Baiano] was arrested on October 15 (…) while watching the demonstration alongside lawyers from [the Institute of Human Rights Defenders]. Jair was called by his name and was arrested without a crime, without reasons. He was charged with armed criminal association, with nothing there to set the charge.

A video from Marcio Kenobi shows the moment in which “Baiano” was arrested in Rio de Janeiro:

Twitter reactions

Many Twitter users expressed their disbelief at the sentence. Others turned to dark humor to criticize the decision – “Brazilian justice is so dirty that it's threatened by a bottle of Pinho Sol detergent,” tweeted Andre Vallias (@andrevallias) – and Brazilian police – “Pinho Sol, bleach, vinegar…the police are clearly receiving bribes from the bacteria lobby” quipped journalist Felipe Corazza (@fcorazza).

Professor Idelber Avelar also responded wryly:

And the MP [public prosecutor], who has not gone after the police who kill 5 people a day, has now framed the can collector with Pinho Sol in the statute of disarmament. Congratulations!

Montagem feita pelo perfil do Anonymous Rio no Facebook

“Rafael Braga, can collector, street dweller, worker. He has been detained for almost five months for carrying two bottles of desinfectant on June 20, 2013. The desinfectant became “molotov”, the military police testified. The public prosecutor indicted. The court accepted. And Rafael in is prison. Rafael is a political prisoner. Free Rafael.” Mashup made by Anonymous Rio profile on Facebook

Suzana Dornelles, in turn, appealed [pt] to Minister of Human Rights Maria do Rosario:

Madam Minister of Human Rights @_mariadorosario, would it be too much to ask you to take a look at the case of the beggar arrested for possessing PINHO SOL? Thanks.

Roberto Pereira suspected [pt] that the conviction is a message:

RIO: A can collector is the first sentenced after the wave of protests. He will remain prisoner for five years / / MESSAGE for the people next year: LEAVE THE WORLD CUP ALONE

The Facebook profile of the social collective Rio na Rua reported that the Institute of Human Rights Defenders will appeal the decision, and journalist Eliane Brum wrote [pt] that the case “was reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN High Commissioner for Human rights.”

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