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Amnesty: Allegations of Brazilian Police Abuse Not New

Brazilian police are facing allegations of brutality and extra-judicial killings in a crackdown this month that came in response to a wave of attacks by a major criminal organization. The violence against police in Sao Paulo was unprecedented, according to rights group Amnesty International, but it says allegations of police abuse are nothing new.

Police say they have restored peace to Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, following a week-long series of attacks by criminal gang members. More than 100 people, including several police officers, were killed in attacks on police stations and public buses, and during rebellions in several prisons.

The violence has prompted many Sao Paulo residents to call for tougher action to deal with gangs.

But local rights groups and victims' relatives say police are going too far, and say some of those killed in the police crackdown were innocent bystanders. Police officials say they are investigating a number of shooting deaths.

Amnesty International Brazil expert Tim Cahill says a probe into alleged police brutality is an important first step. "It is important that the government has taken it on, its responsibility to investigate these allegations. But having said that, the information we are receiving is getting worse and worse. What I have heard, I heard of at least 12 killings in five separate incidents where there were clear indications of police officers in masks executing people," he said.

He says the latest killings were not included in the latest Amnesty International report on human rights around the world, which was released Tuesday.

But the report says more than 9,000 cases of police killings were recorded in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro between 1999 and 2004, and very few were investigated. It adds that human rights violations have been reported against police in Colombia, Haiti, and several Central American nations.

Cahill says the concern in Brazil is that decades of police abuse have taken a heavy toll on poor communities. "The judicial system really takes it on itself to penalize those most vulnerable and with least protection from the state, essentially the poorest sectors of society. And the prison system has become a dumping ground and a breeding ground for these criminal gangs. So the whole system has become a mechanism for creating criminals and far from producing the kind of protection people want," he said.

The criminal gang blamed for ordering the violence - known as the First Command of the Capital - came to power in the overcrowded and under-staffed prisons of Sao Paulo state during the past decade. The problem has become so bad that jailed gang leaders are said to continue to operate vast criminal organizations from their cells.

The vice president of the Brazilian Institute for Criminal Sciences in Sao Paulo, Sergio Mazina, agrees that a failing prison system is part of the problem.

He says the problem has roots in legal reforms taken in the 1990s, which sharply increased the number of people being jailed. He says the state government was unable to deal with prison overcrowding, and that allowed criminal organizations to thrive.

Mazina adds that the solution now is not to jail more people, but to expand the number of trained personnel at Brazil's prisons.

But the task of drawing new talent to Brazil's under-funded prison system may be a major challenge, about 20,000 prison workers in Sao Paulo have launched a strike to demand better conditions and more pay.