South America

Argentina lawmakers propose bill to legalize elective abortion

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina’s government said it would consider holding a referendum on legalizing abortions. After seven proposals for bills that would decriminalize abortion, this is the first time the center-right government has ever agreed to consider it.

A pro-abortion activist listens to a speech outside of Congress. Image Courtesy of Victor R. Caivano.

On Tuesday, more than 70 Argentine lawmakers of various political parties presented a bill to legalize elective abortions for women in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Most lawmakers wore green handkerchiefs symbolizing the abortion rights movement and cheered as the bill was introduced. Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said the issue is “on the table.”

Historically, abortion has been a controversial issue in the predominately Catholic nation. Right now, it is only allowed in Argentina in cases of rape, cases where a woman’s health is at risk, or cases where there is a severe malformation of the fetus. In 2012 the Supreme Court passed a ruling to remove barriers and take judges out of the decision. However, women must still apply to a judge for permission to get an abortion. Critics consider it an unnecessary requirement intended to delay the procedure. Regardless of the legislation, doctors and judges continue to block abortions.

While legislative efforts have failed in the past, new initiatives have gained momentum. This bill was introduced at a ceremony attended by dozens of activists. Following 13 years of struggle, the National Campaign for the Right of Legal Safe and Free Abortion has gained the support of over 500 organizations and prominent figures. The group said, “over the past weeks, Argentine society has proved that it was not only prepared to debate about abortion but also to make a decision in favor of its decriminalization and legalization.”

The group also stated, “the State does not fulfill with the international treaties regarding women’s rights and people with the ability to be pregnant: in this country, between 370,000 and 520,000 abortions are carried out every year in secrecy, with about 49,000 women ending at the hospital because of complications related to unsafe surgeries.”

Argentina’s health ministry reaffirms those numbers and estimates that up to 522,000 Argentine women undergo illegal abortions every year. Several Latin American countries outlaw abortion in any circumstance. However, some have legalized therapeutic abortions.  The U.N. Population Fund reported that eight percent of women’s deaths worldwide are due to unsafe abortions. In Latin America and Africa, about 25% of all abortions are classified as unsafe and performed under substandard conditions.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri said he was personally opposed to relaxing the country’s abortion laws, but assured that he would give Congress a free vote.

For more information, please see:

Americas Quarterly – The Surprising Politics Behind Argentina’s Abortion Debate – 7 March 2018

BBC News – Argentina abortion: Referendum ‘on the table’, government says – 6 March 2018 

Washington Post – Argentina lawmakers propose legalizing elective abortion – 6 March 2018

Telesur – Argentine Women’s Groups Hopeful About Legalizing Abortion – 4 March 2018

Thousands mourn the assassination of Rio councilwoman

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Thousands of Brazilians are taking part in a vigil to honor a politician who was brutally murdered, Marielle Franco. In the days leading up to her death, Franco campaigned heavily against police brutality.

Marielle Franco in Rio. Image Courtesy of Midia Ninja.

The 38-year-old Rio city councilor for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party was shot dead in her car on Wednesday evening. After leaving a meeting about empowering black women, a car pulled up alongside hers. Attackers sprayed her car with bullets which fatally injured her and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Additionally, a press officer working for Franco was injured while sitting in the back seat.

The Brazilian director of Human Rights Watch, Maria Laura Canineu, described Franco as “an outspoken and courageous advocate for victims of police abuse and a tireless defender of the rights of women and Afro-Brazilians.” She added, “Brazilian authorities need to respond decisively by identifying those responsible for the killing of Marielle and Anderson, and bringing them to justice.”

Franco grew up in an impoverished community in Rio. She became an activist and was elected to city council in 2016 as the only black female representative and one of seven women in the council. She became president of the women’s commission and was recently appointed to rapporteur of a municipal commission to monitor the federal intervention in policing Rio.

This federal intervention began in February when President Michel Temer handed over control of the state police and prisons to the armed forces. Franco had been a vocal critic of the measure, pointing out that it threatened to raise bloodshed without addressing the root cause of violence. In the days leading up to her death, she posted several tweets about police killings and assumed responsibility for conducting oversight of the military intervention.

As of Thursday afternoon, no suspects have been taken into custody. Rio’s civil police is responsible for investigating the killing. If needed, it is supposed to collaborate with federal police. Human Rights Watch asks that the army general in charge of the military intervention makes sure that investigators have the necessary independence and resources to find the killers. Also, Amnesty International urged that the investigation be rigorous and focus on the context, motive, and responsibility for the killing.

Canineu says, “The climate of near total impunity in Rio de Janeiro needs to end once and for all. Marielle and Anderson are the latest victims of a security system that has long failed to stop violence, or to ensure justice for the victims.”

On Thursday, thousands of Brazilians marched to the Rio state assembly to protest Franco’s murder. Many wore black and chanted against the police. One woman, Ilona Szabo, said that Franco “represented hope for so many women who never felt like they had a voice.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Brazil: Vigil held for Rio politician killed in drive-by shooting – 15 March 2018

Human Rights Watch – Brazil: Assassination of Rights Defender, Driver – 15 March 2018

New York Times – Killing of Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Critical of Police Rattles Brazil – 15 March 2018

The Guardian – Protests held across Brazil after Rio councillor shot dead – 15 March 2015

The Citizen – Thousand of Brazilians mourn slain Rio councillor, rights activist – 15 March 2018

Brazilian Supreme Court rules pregnant women will no longer await trial in jail

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The Brazilian Supreme court issued a groundbreaking human rights ruling that people accused of non-violent crimes are allowed to await trial under house arrest instead of in detention centers. This rule applies to women who are pregnant, who have children up to twelve years of age, and people with disabilities.

Painted fingernails at a women’s prison in Brazil. Image Courtesy of Ueslei Marcelino.

This decision came in the wake of public outcry about pretrial detention conditions. In December, Human Rights Watch reported that conditions were worsening and pre-trial detention was growing dramatically. Brazilian prisons lack adequate care for pregnant women and newborns. Prenatal and postpartum medical care are minimal or non-existent. Also, two thirds of female detention centers lack designated facilities for pregnant women and babies.

Before this decision, the Brazilian Criminal Code stated that judges “may” determine house arrest instead of preventative detention when a woman is pregnant or has a child of up to twelve-years-old. Now, justices have decided that this exception needs to become a rule. After the decision is published, courts will have to comply with the order within sixty days. Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 15,000 women could be released. However, it will not affect inmates who have been found guilty.

While Human Rights Watch celebrates the ruling, the organization says Brazil still has work to do on prison reform. Brazil must address “excessive pretrial detention for all, and ensure all pregnant women and mothers in detention are held in humane conditions, with adequate health care, in compliance with Brazilian law and international standards.”

The public outcry stemmed from stories like Jessica Monteiro’s. She was arrested for allegedly possessing ninety grams of marijuana. At twenty-four years old, she had no criminal record, was pregnant, and was throw into a filthy police precinct cell. She went into labor the next day and was taken to a hospital to give birth. The court held a hearing in her absence where a judge ruled that she should remain in jail pending her trial. A few days later, police returned her to the cell where she slept on a mattress on the floor with her newborn.

Several have raised criticism over the ruling. The President of the Federation of Penitentiary Servants, Allan Vieira, stated that “women could be used by criminal enterprises to commit crimes while on house arrest including carrying weapons and drugs into the jails.”

While this will not affect the male incarceration rate, officials hope this will relieve overcrowding in women’s prisons.

For more information, please see:

IR Insider – Brazil Supreme Court Issues Landmark Human Rights Ruling – 4 March 2018

The Nation – Deceit at a Brazilian ‘Crisis Pregnancy Center’ – 28 February 2018

The Jurist – Brazil top court rules pregnant woman will no longer serve pre-trial detention in jail – 23 February 2018

Human Rights Watch – Pregnant Women Will No Longer Await Trial in Brazilian Jails – 23 February 2018

Folha de S. Paulo – Pregnant Women and Mothers of Children of Up to 12 Years of Age to Be Placed on House Arrest – 21 February 2018

Mass exodus of Venezuelans overwhelms Latin America

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CUCUTA, Colombia – The mass exodus of Venezuelans desperate to leave their country are overwhelming the continent. Venezuela has spurred one of the biggest migration crises in Latin American history.

A boy from Colombia’s indigenous Yukpa community stands at the entrance to the border bridge in Cucuta. Image Courtesy of Ivan Valencia.

The International Organization for migration reports that nearly one million Venezuelans have left their country over the past two years, with a surge during the second half of 2017 when the economy took a hit. One immigration expert, Tomas Paez, says that “our migration levels are now comparable to Syria or to Bangladesh.”

Colombia’s border cities are taking the worst of the crisis. Roughly 250,000 migrants have crossed the border into Colombia since August, with 3,000 still arriving every day. Approximately 3,000 troops are fanning out across the 1,400-mile border in an effort to contain the migration. The government had to suspend the issuance of temporary visas for Venezuelans last month. It has begun operations to capture and expel illegal immigrants. The regional director of a Catholic charity in Colombia, Willington Munoz Sierra, considers this a humanitarian crisis. He says, “In Venezuela, children are dying. People are starving and being persecuted. What they’re getting from us is a door in the face.”

Similarly, Brazil has declared a state of “social emergency” in response to the massive influx of migrants. In recent months, 40,000 Venezuelans have poured across Brazil’s northern border. The migration has stressed infrastructure and caused security concerns. Residents in border cities worry about crime and Venezuelans taking away jobs. Brazilian President Michel Temer assessed the crises and suggested that some migrants could be moved to other states. Still, he insisted that Brazil would not turn its back on the refugees and pledged $20 million to the cause. The military has doubled its troops in border areas and established a field hospital for migrants.

All Latin American nations are feeling the impact of the crisis to some extent. Peru has seen the largest percentage increase in Venezuelan population. From 2015 to 2017, it increased 1,388%. In response, Peru is offering temporary resident permits to Venezuelans which grants them the right to work. Likewise, Panama has been overwhelmed with Venezuelans. It has imposed new visa requirements making it more difficult for migrants to be granted asylum.

Jozef Merkx, representative for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in Colombia, said the agency is concerned about the operations that expel migrants lacking valid visas. However, it is harder to classify its people as refugees in need of international protection because Venezuela is not at war. He says, “People fleeing Syria were generally seen as refugees, but that’s not the case with Venezuelans. Venezuela is not being bombed. It has some of the dimensions [of a refugee crisis], but not all Venezuelans are refugees.”

For more information, please see:

Chicago Tribune – Venezuelans are fleeing their crisis-torn country en masse – 3 March 2018  

Washington Post – The Crisis Next Door – 2 March 2018

Reuters – Special report: A journey on a caravan of misery – 2 March 2018

DW – Brazil to declare ’emergency’ in response to Venezuela migrant influx – 16 February 2018

Brazil’s army uncooperative on Rio killings

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

SAO PAULO, Brazil – Human Rights Watch reported that Brazil’s army will not make its personnel available to talk with state prosecutors about the Rio de Janeiro killings that are under investigation. The joint raid with civil police occurred on November 11th, 2017 and left 8 people dead.

Brazilian marines stand guard during a surprise operation in Kelson’s slum in Rio de Janeiro. Image Courtesy of Leo Correa.

On November 7th, army helicopters dropped personnel in a forested area within a neighborhood near Rio. The soldiers hid and waited for the chance to intercept suspects. However, the mission failed because someone tipped off local gang members. Then on November 11th, the army conducted another operation in the same area. The civil police elite unit later found that 8 people had been shot and killed. Witnesses reported shots coming from the forested area by men wearing all black with highly advanced weapons. The equipment identified the killers as military special forces.

However, the army claims that they did not fire their weapons during the operation and therefore refuse to open an investigation into the killings. The federal military prosecutor opened an inquiry anyway, but has to rely on the army to handle the investigation. In October, Congress approved a law that allows the military to handle investigations of civilian killings during police operations by members of the armed forces. Any potential trial would be held before a court of military officers, virtually guaranteeing that there would be no impartial or independent investigation.

This law was passed in spite of the international norm that human rights violations should never be tried before military courts. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights explains that, “when the State permits investigations to be conducted by the entities with possible involvement, independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”

Even though state prosecutors can’t investigate army personnel as suspects, they can interview them as witness to find out what happened. It has been almost three months since state prosecutors met with General Walter Braga Netto, chief of the Eastern Military Command. The prosecutors called the meeting to learn about the army’s involvement in the case. Immediately afterward, prosecutors requested a copy of transcripts of statements made by members of the army who participated in the operation. They also requested interviews with the participants. Still, the army has yet to provide either.

Brazil’s director at Human Rights Watch, Maria Laura Canineu, remarked that, “the stonewalling by General Braga Netto shows a lack of any serious commitment to justice for the victims in this case and a flagrant disrespect for civilian authorities. This does not bode well for regular citizens during his tenure as head of public security in Rio de Janeiro.” She insisted that the general show he is not trying to bury the case by doing his duty to find the killers and ensure justice.

For more information, please see:

News 18 – Military Takeover of Rio de Janeiro police Stirs Dictatorship Ghosts – 24 February 2018

The Brazilian Report – Under intervention, Rip relives problems of 200 years ago – 24 February 2018

US News – Life in a War Zone – 23 February 2018

Human Rights Watch – Brazil: Army Stonewalls on Rio Killings – 23 February 2018