Lessons in torture

Enda Leahy

Juvenile offenders in Sao Paolo should be able to spend their time in one of the most forward-looking penal regimes in the world. But the reality is very different. Enda Leahy reports

The cheery copies of Van Gogh masterpieces Dr Wilson Tafner paints for his office walls are his escape from the horrifying images that await him at work each morning. Sighing and making the sign of the cross, he takes a yellowing file from an enormous pile and begins another investigation into a child's nightmare in a Brazilian children's prison.

A prosecutor in the Sao Paolo state's Ministry of Justice, Dr Tafner has the job of assessing the progress and development of juveniles imprisoned in units of the euphemistically named State Foundation for the Wellbeing of Minors detention centres, known as the Febem. Most are detained for drugs crimes and robbery; some for murder and others for repeated lesser offences. In reality, Dr Tafner is fighting a daily battle to protect children from torture and brutalisation in this very institution.

It is to Dr Tafner that relatives come for answers. "The kind of information we have to give families is so brutal, so shocking, that there is often no point in telling them the whole truth," he shrugs. "Why tell a mother her son was stabbed more than 100 times?"

His video evidence shows teenagers, too scared or too numb to cry any longer, displaying black welts from beatings with iron bars. The holes in their flesh, made by nail-studded clubs, look almost like acne, until the camera zooms in. Children display empty gums where front teeth have been smashed out, and show how heavy chains and padlocks are used to inflict beatings, twist fingers and strangle them.

"They treat us like animals," whimpers one boy to camera, a sentence that became the title of an Amnesty International report condemning the Febem.

He looks no more than 13 years old.

The Febem were set up 30 years ago. Dr Tafner, a local man, has been uncovering the horrors behind their doors for the past five. "We currently have almost 300 investigations into maltreatment and torture by Febem employees," he says. Seven wardens, including a director of one unit, were convicted of torture in May, and 22 more await prosecution as a result of his work.

Brazil's law for adolescents is regarded as exemplary, specifying that children should receive psychological, socio-educational and vocational assistance to prevent social exclusion and end delinquency. In reality, says Dr Tafner, they come out far worse than they go in. Every second day a former Febem inmate kills someone in Sao Paolo. Every day another ex-inmate goes to an adult jail.

The Sao Paolo Febem's 68 units hold 6,500 13 to 18-year-olds - half of Brazil's growing adolescent prison population, and seem unable to cope. Dr Tafner has sued the state government for overcrowding four times. "Until 1999 there were only a few Febem units, including Immigrantes, where there was a huge riot five years ago," says Dr Tafner. "It had a capacity of 320 but when the riot happened in October 1999, there were nearly 1,600 adolescents. It was like Auschwitz."

Worse than the overcrowding are the medieval methods of discipline. Michael Pereira da Silva, 19, knows all about them. In five years he has spent time in nine Febem units. Two of his friends died inside, one was shot, the other was taken from his cell at night and beaten to death, with no warning or apparent reason. "If I was to use what I learned inside," he says, "I'd rob a bank or two. There are all kinds of criminals in there, from chicken thieves to bank robbers and killers."

Many of the guards, he says, are on cocaine, and the riots and rebellions that break out each month are a reaction to beatings and abuse. "It's a war, but we always lose - because they've got the police, shock units, everything."

"Chuck", another boy released two months ago, says he was attacked with truncheons, iron bars and chairs - "everything", he shrugs. Once, he was beaten simply for taking his shirt off in bed when he was too hot. "Their favourite punishment is the Polish corridor: they form two lines and you must run through being beaten by them all."

One mother who knows the risks of having a child in Febem is Solange Queiroz. She sent her son Sidney to another prosecutor, one who deals with sentencing and appraisal. "God forgive me," she recalls. "He was addicted to drugs and I didn't know what else to do. They beat him with iron bars.

He was just 16." Several weeks after he reported the violence to Dr Tafner's office last November, he was put in a cell and burned alive, the second boy to die in the same way in that unit. It took him 10 days to die.

Conceicao Paganelle, the head of a network of mothers of Febem children, and the only person to have won Brazil's national human rights award twice, says crime is the unavoidable reality of existence for most Sao Paolo children. "These children grow up on the streets. The people they're surrounded by are drug traffickers. If the government gave more money for primary schools and day care centres, they'd be spending less on Febem and on prisons."

The director of Brazil's office of Unesco, Jorge Werthein, agrees, calling Febem a "typical example of a costly programme which is repressive, not preventive and, in most cases, not educational" - even though they have been the responsibility of the secretary of education for the past year.

Febem cost about 300 times the price, per person, of opening schools at weekends to keep children off the streets, he says.

One lawyer representing inmates described a unit where guards said they were schooling the boys. "Lessons" consisted of a piece of paper being pushed under a locked door. Inmates of all levels and abilities are taught in the same classes.

Jorge Werthein applauds the Febem administration's efforts under its latest president to weed out violent staff and create work partnerships with the private sector to find jobs for the youths when they get out - McDonald's, for example, has employed 59 ex-inmates. But he insists that in most cases these youngsters have "neither a present, nor a future". Attempts to build new, smaller units, as the law stipulates, have foundered due to lack of funds, and the population of the Febem is thought to be rising by 500 a year.

Unlike the sunny canvases in his office, the art Dr Tafner has produced since starting in the Febem is a catalogue of dark, blood-soaked testimonials, which he keeps at home."I put a lot of what I've seen into my paintings," he murmurs. "It's a way to exorcise these things."

Turning back to his files, he stares at a photo of a young boy's corpse lying twisted and bloody on a filthy Febem floor, a broken cigarette contemptuously stuffed into the mouth."I painted it," he says sadly. "We have many ghosts here."

Amnesty International will be launching a campaign on torture in Brazil, including in the Febem, later this year. To find out more, visit: http:web.amnesty.orglibraryeng-braindex

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Enda Leahy

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