On Thursday July 28, Front Line Defenders hosted a press conference with five outspoken activists from Rio de Janeiro who have gained distinction as Human Rights Defenders, as a part of a campaign to bring increased visibility to escalating intimidation, threats, and forms of violence experienced by human rights defenders in anticipation of the Olympics.
Front Line Defenders—an Irish organization operating internationally—aims to provide protection for human rights defenders according to security needs defined by the defenders themselves. The stakes are particularly high for human rights defenders in Brazil: the country topped the list of killings reported to Front Line Defenders worldwide in 2016, with 24 defenders killed in just the first four months of the year. Given that denouncing rights violations may place these individuals and their families in serious personal danger, resources available to at-risk human rights defenders include security training workshops, protection grants to bolster physical and digital security and to cover legal and medical fees, and emergency support (such as temporary relocation in cases of imminent danger).
The press conference commenced with an introduction by Adam Shapiro, Head of Campaigns at Front Line Defenders, followed by a discussion moderated by Protection Coordinator for the Americas Ivi Oliveira featuring the three Human Rights Defenders sitting on the panel: Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, Raull Santiago, and Mônica Cunha.*
Heloisa Helena Costa Berto
Heloisa, a Candomblé priestess, began the conversation by speaking about her experience of being evicted from her home and spiritual center in Vila Autódromo: “For me, these three years have been full of suffering… Because of the whole process of eviction, for me to continue with my house, I had to choose and I had to fight. For this, I lost my Candomblé followers, I lost my activities, I couldn’t regularly practice [my religion], up to the point that the City surrounded my house, and placed it inside the Olympic Park.”
Recognizing the powerful economic and political interests that worked to uproot the community of Vila Autódromo, Heloisa recounted: “I started to see that, excuse the expression, ‘the ditch is deeper,’” (things are not as they appear).
Heloisa described the process of eviction as a form of “psychological trauma” as the City employed oppressive tactics, such as suspending public services and requiring a special access pass to reach her house. As Heloisa documented in an open letter published by RioOnWatch earlier this year, the process of removal was further complicated by a tenant living on her property, who interfered in the two-year-long process of negotiation with the City—escalating in January 2016 when Heloisa received death threats.
Heloisa’s home was demolished by the City on February 24, 2016. In recognition of her struggle and activism, Heloisa received the Ernesto Pedro Award from the State House of Representatives and the Dandara medal from the State Legislative Assembly.
With the onslaught of problems currently facing Brazil, Heloisa described, “I have a very negative view with respect to the future. Unfortunately, it’s the poor who suffer the most.”
Raull Santiago is a member of Coletivo Papo Reto, an independent media collective composed of residents of Complexo do Alemão formed in 2014. Through his work with Papo Reto, exposing the reality experienced by residents of the Complexo do Alemão favela in ways such as documenting abuses and denouncing violations committed by authorities, Raull has become a vocal activist.
Raull explained how poor, black favela youth constantly run the risk of being afflicted by gun violence:
“In our reality, the State is killing our children. Eduardo de Jesus was 10 years old when he was shot with a 762 rifle that exploded his head because he was sitting on the doorstep of his house with his cell phone in hand. Recently, a youth was killed by a gunshot because he had a bag of popcorn, and the police thought it was a bag of drugs. In Jacaré, a boy died with a R$1 coin in his hand—he was going to buy candy. We are being exterminated from our roots, since childhood—kids who haven’t even come of age, who don’t have a full understanding of the reality in which they live. They’re dying from violence, they’re dying from gunshots, and the majority of them are dying in this so-called ‘war on drugs’—which is really a war on the poor, a war on black people, a war on these spaces in the city.”
Raull went on to describe the significance of Papo Reto’s work in the face of systemic violence committed against favela youth. Holding up his smartphone, Raull described: “Coletivo Papo Reto uses this tool to try to expose this situation because we believe that denouncing institutional violence is very important—it’s an obligation, it’s the provision of a service for the city while on the other hand those meant to protect and serve are the principal violators [of rights].”
In the face of the violence experienced nearly on a daily basis in Complexo do Alemão, Papo Reto works to:
“…question the actions of the State, question this institutional violence, and expose it in the way that we’re able to—using social networks, using video—in order to at least be able to show that it exists… Papo Reto works on this front: being in an area of violence, of confrontation, of extreme war, providing coverage, disputing this narrative, and thinking about actions in order to—in some way—transform a bit of this reality.”
Mônica Cunha is a member of the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence—a network of support and activism for mothers and families who have lost loved ones to police violence—and the co-founder of Movimento Moleque, one of the movements organized within the Network.
Mônica spoke about the rampant and systemic state violence committed against young black men, who are racially profiled and typecast as “criminals”:
“Young, black men are assassinated by the militarized system in this state, in this country. It is black women who are being sickened… losing their sons. First, it’s a lie that they’re criminals. Because when we’re talking about criminals in this country, are we going to talk about [politicians like] Temer, Cunha, Aécio? We see that this is only an excuse to continue killing black people, to continue making these black women sick and crazy.”
Having been involved with the Network since it was founded in 2003, Mônica became a grieving mother herself in 2006 when her son Rafael, age 20, was killed by police in Riachuelo in Rio’s North Zone. Mônica described:
“One aspect [of the Network] is to demand justice—not revenge, justice. I gave birth to my son and wish he was alive—not just alive, but alive in such a way that he belongs to this state, with the right to come and go. The state and this country are his, just as much as any other person. Being black, we are the majority in this country, we built this country, and so we have ever more the right to be in this country, to walk through its alleyways.
Mônica concluded on an empowering note: “To be a defender of rights these days means to resist every day… I want to have the pleasure of one day saying, ‘We helped contribute to a new society.’ Because we deserve every right. We are capable. My name is Mônica Cunha, and I want to continue living. Together with my partners, I am a proud defender of human rights.”
Following Mônica’s speech, the forum then opened up for discussion and panelists answered questions from journalists and other participants in attendance.
*Also recognized as Human Rights Defenders in Rio are Vitor Ribeiro of media activism project Mutirão Rio and Luiz Cláudio Silva, resident of Vila Autódromo and husband of Maria da Penha. Vitor and Luiz did not participate in the panel discussion.