Almost one year on, the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group with Human Rights Watch conclude autopsy reports of victims do not meet minimum professional and scientific standards.
Military police officers sit with the feet on top of what appears to be the body of one or more of the victims killed by police in Rio de Janeiro on February 8, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender´s Office.
A Human Rights Watch commissioned pro bono forensic investigation led by the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) into police records of a ‘false rescue’ case shows serious indications of police tampering of evidence and grave short-comings in the investigation of the killings of nine people. The killings happened during a military police operation in the poor communities of Fallet-Fogueteiro, and the Prazeres neighborhoods in the Brazilian capital Rio de Janeiro, on February 8, 2019. In 2019, the level of extrajudicial killings by the Brazilian police reached a two-decade high with almost 600 people killed in the first 4 months. New laws and policies encourage greater impunity, where recent cases suggest police are implementing ‘shoot-to-kill’ tactics.
The military police claim to have opened fire after suspects shot at them which ultimately resulted in 13 deaths. The IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group conducted in June 2019 an independent expert review of 9 copies of autopsy reports and records of nine of the deceased. Human Rights Watch were unable to obtain the remaining 4 autopsy reports. The HRW and IRCT IFEG investigation ultimately conclude that military police may have transported the dead bodies to the hospital and lied to police investigators by saying they were alive. The military police officers claimed that all victims were injured but alive and they had taken them to the hospital for medical treatment to save their lives. All were dead when they arrived. The police investigators exonerated the military police on unsubstantiated grounds without having concluded any satisfactory forensic examination.
After examining the autopsy reports the IRCT IFEG experts determined the autopsy reports had been produced in a grossly substandard quality, making it impossible to make definite conclusions to whether the victims had died at the scene or at the hospital: ‘The lack of this fundamental procedure is unacceptable and a strong limitation to securing conclusions.’ The experts did however find that the victims had several gunshot wounds and signs of severe trauma, concluding that such injuries ‘may rapidly lead to death’ and in one case the trauma was so severe that ‘death was highly likely to be instantaneous’. The autopsy reports say that police did not request gunpowder residue analysis which is crucial for police investigators to consider whether the victims had indeed opened fire against military police officers as claimed. The autopsy reports also show that the pathologist did not examine the victims’ clothing, which is a key source of information to identify and document the circumstances of death: ‘The reconstruction of events in this case is affected by poor or non-existent detailed cloth examination.’
The Independent Forensic Expert Group concludes in the analysis that all autopsy reports have grievous failings with no appropriate procedures; there is a lack of physical sampling of wounds, inadequate photographs, a lack of examination of clothing, poor autopsy examinations and a lack of search for fragments of gun residue – all of which point to grave evidence mishandling. Conclusively, this, combined with moving bodies (claiming to do so to save them), indicates that the purpose of moving the bodies is to destroy evidence and to make investigations into police killings more difficult.
Bullet holes in the wall and blood on the floor of a house in the Fallet neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro after police killed nine men there on February 8, 2019. Photo by Thatiana Gurgel, Rio de Janeiro Public Defender´s Office.
This case is not unique; Human Rights Watch has for decades documented ‘false rescues’ in Rio de Janeiro, where police claim they take people they’ve shot to hospitals to save them but arriving dead – a strong indication of tampering of evidence.
The IRCT IFEG states that strict measures must be put in place with international standards and protocol for forensic investigations and autopsy reports in Rio de Janeiro. These should only be conducted by medical professionals and services and not by the police. ‘The basic procedures must be followed in all cases where death occurs in the context of law enforcement actions. All autopsy reports must adhere to international minimum standards of post-mortem examinations with scientifically supported conclusions.’ - James Lin, IFEG Coordinator
In this case, an internal affairs department should open an investigation into the handling of evidence, including serious omissions and errors in the autopsies and punish those responsible.
For more information
The Independent Forensic Expert Group is an international body of 39 medico-legal forensic experts. They work pro bono for the IRCT in documenting the physical and psychological effects of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The IFEG represents a vast collective experience in the evaluation and documentation of the evidence of torture and ill-treatment; providing technical advice and expertise in cases, where allegations of torture or ill-treatment are made.