HLS team documents human rights abuse in Brazil
At the southwestern tip of the Amazon, in Porto Velho, Rondônia, Brazil, stands Urso Branco, a prison notorious for deadly human rights violations. It’s nowhere anyone would choose to be. But it was into this dank, dark and volatile world that Clara Long ’11; Fernando Delgado ’08, a fellow with the Human Rights Program; and James Cavallaro, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, insisted on going.
Urso Branco has a violent history. Two prisoner uprisings in 2002 left at least 38 people dead. Another massacre occurred in 2004. These events earned Urso Branco an injunction, known as “provisional measures,” from the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica.
The HLS group spent two days in September investigating the prison in preparation for a court hearing to consider whether to lift provisional measures. Entering more than 20 cells, they spoke with more than 100 inmates, and amassed documentary evidence that corroborated the prisoners’ allegations of gunfire and torture. They documented that guards routinely fired live rounds at prisoners as they cowered in their cells; some prisoners still had bullets lodged in their bodies months after being hit; and torture was systematic.
They were assisted by clinical student Alexia De Vincentis ’10, who did legal research off-site and later joined them in Costa Rica, where the team prepared a case against the prison.
Based on their findings and on presentations by attorneys for Justiça Global and Comissão de Justiça e Paz, two Brazilian NGOs also monitoring the prison, the court ruled, on Dec. 14, 2009, to maintain the provisional measures imposed. It ordered Brazil to implement all necessary measures to guarantee the life and physical integrity of the prisoners and prison staff.
It was a significant win. “We were mostly fighting an uphill battle in a context in which the court had lifted provisional measures in similar cases,” says De Vincentis.Top of page