Latin America & Caribbean

Rafael Braga: Scapegoat or dangerous protester?

Rafael Braga at the Institute of Human Rights Defenders Image copyright DDH
Image caption Rafael Braga was the only person to be convicted in connection with the mass street protests in Rio in 2014

Rafael Braga was on his way to the bakery last month with 3 reais ($0.75; £0.50) in his pocket to buy bread for his mother when he was arrested in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the north of Rio de Janeiro.

Officers with Rio's so-called pacification police (UPP), which was deployed to the city's favelas to restore order in these often violent neighbourhoods, suspected him of drug trafficking.

When they took him to their local headquarters, it was a case of deja vu for Mr Braga.

The 27-year-old had been released from prison only a month earlier with an electronic monitoring tag around his ankle to serve the rest of a five-year sentence in the community.

He had been the only person convicted in connection with the mass street demonstrations which rocked Rio in 2013.

Mr Braga, who says he had no knowledge of the protests, was convicted of carrying cleaning products which prosecutors argued could have been used to make a Molotov cocktail.

Experts said the ethanol level was insufficient to make an explosive, and human rights campaigners said Mr Braga's conviction was designed to serve as a deterrent to others.

2013 wave of protests

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protesters took to the streets of major Brazilian cities in June and July of 2013
  • Mass street protests erupted in major Brazilian cities in June and July of 2013
  • Initially triggered by a rise in fare prices on public transport
  • After a brutal crackdown by police, the protests grew in size
  • Protesters also expressed their anger with police brutality, wide-spread corruption, the high cost of staging the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup and lack of investment in education
  • Some protests turned violent, with groups of hooded activists damaging banks and setting alight buses

Assault allegation

After his re-arrest in January, his lawyers said he was once again the victim of a judicial system based on "social control", which they say targets those already disadvantaged in Brazil's society.

According to police, Braga was carrying 0.6g of marijuana and a firework, the kind known to be used by drug traffickers to alert gangs when police officers enter the community.

"The 22nd police station (Penha) recorded the arrest in flagrante of Rafael Braga Vieira, 27, for drug trafficking offences and association with drug trafficking," a police spokeswoman said.

"The suspect was sent to the prison authorities."

Mr Braga denied any involvement with drug trafficking and alleged the police had assaulted him during the arrest, as well as framing him by planting the evidence.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Favela residents say they have been unfairly targeted by members of the "pacification" police, or UPP

Rio's Civil Police confirmed it was investigating the complaints against the officers. Mr Braga remains in custody, awaiting his next court hearing.

In the meantime, he has become the face of an ongoing battle to end discrimination by Rio's criminal justice authorities against young, poor, black men.

Last August, a report by rights group Amnesty International found that the majority of victims of police violence in Rio were black men aged 15 to 29.

"Rafael is one more young, black man from a favela, with a vulnerable social situation, who has had this 'trafficker's kit' [the allegedly planted evidence] used against him," says Simone Quirino, from the Institute of Human Rights Defenders, which is acting for Mr Braga.

Ms Quirino says Mr Braga had been remanded illegally on the grounds that he had a "personality prone to criminal activity" and that his detention was necessary to restore "public order".

Ms Quirino says the terms used by prosecutors to describe Mr Braga date back to 19th-Century criminology but continue to be used today.

She also fears that Mr Braga could be convicted on the basis of the evidence given by the police officers alone, for which there is a precedent in Rio's justice system.

'Too afraid'

Mr Braga's mother thinks potential witnesses to her son's arrest may be too scared to speak out.

Image copyright Donna Bowater
Image caption Adriana Braga fears no witnesses will come forward to help her son, who she says was wrongfully detained

"He went out for 10 minutes to buy bread. There were other people who saw it, but people are afraid," Adriana Braga says.

She thinks residents of Vila Cruzeiro fear retaliation in a community with a constant heavy police presence.

Home to 20,000 people, the favela was "pacified" by a special police unit in 2012 as part of a programme to improve security in the favelas.

Mrs Braga hopes Rafael will be released following his next appearance in front of a judge.

But in the meantime, the mother-of-seven travels to the other side of the city to visit her son in jail and provide him with basics like food and clothing.

With state services, including the prison service, facing economic hardship, it is left to inmates' relatives to help.

"He didn't even have a piece of dry bread," she says before expressing her fears for his sanity.

"Rafael was always a good son. I hope he will be released or he will go crazy in there."