Reflections on Disappearance of People and Covid-19

Enforced disappearance is a growing phenomenon in Brazil, but there is few studies of it outside the context of the military dictatorship. The disappearance of people is a multifaceted violation of human rights that also occurs in democratic contexts, through the action or omission of state agents for public security, especially within the prison system.

During the Brazilian Military Dictatorship started in 1964, the enforced disappearance generated an unknown number of victims. Even though the National Truth Commission recorded in its reports 434 dead and missing persons, there is an invisible contingent of unclaimed missing persons, not considered (mistakenly) as a result of the dictatorial violence and there are even those who did not enter the final count due to lack of documentation evidence of the disappearance.

Among missing persons there are women, black people, indigenous people, and other segments that remain without the “privilege” of being considered victims of enforced disappearance (Flauzina, Ana and Freitas, Fábio. Do paradoxal privilégio de ser vítima: terror de estado e a negação do sofrimento negro no Brasil, Revista brasileira de ciências criminaisNº. 135, 2017). It is worth to remember the case of the indigenous people who suffered from human hunts promoted with machine guns and dynamites thrown from planes, purposeful inoculations of smallpox, and donations of sugar mixed with strychnine during the years of dictatorship. These episodes were unknown until the discovery in 2013 of the Report written by the then-attorney Jader de Figueiredo Correia, 45 years after it was written. The number of indigenous people and communities that have suffered from cruel torture, deaths and enforced disappearance in the hands of the military and paramilitary forces during the dictatorship is incalculable.

 Enforced Disappearance is considered to be the “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law”, as advocated by the article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This definition highlights the role of the State in the crime of enforced disappearance. In Brazil, in post-dictatorial times, the number of enforced disappearances remains high, despite not occurring for political motivation, most of times. Daily police violence has claimed many victims, as it is the emblematic case of João Pedro’s death by police in Rio de Janeiro last April. João Pedro was playing in the yard when he was shot and taken, without his family’s knowledge, by a Police helicopter. Only the next day the family discovered the whereabouts of the boy’s body.

In another context, the National Mechanism for Preventing and Combating Torture, an organ created in 2013, drew attention to the occurrence of people disappearing in prisons in Brazil. According to the 2018 Recommendations Monitoring Report, the “Massacre at the Alcaçuz State Penitentiary gathered evidence of enforced disappearance practices at that time, such as the existence of incinerated bodies, buried in makeshift ditches or thrown into septic tanks at the time of the Massacre”. Such practices may be taking place in other prisons, especially after massacres, but not only in these cases. There is resistance from the public authorities to promote adequate investigations, which obscures the dimension of the phenomenon of enforced disappearance in Brazil (https://www.gov.br/mdh/pt-br/acesso-a-informacao/participacao-social/mecanismo-nacional-de-prevencao-e-combate-a-tortura-mnpct/web_final_RelatriodeMonitoramentodeRecomendaes.pdf)

In addition to these cases, I wanted to reflect on the current context in which we live in a global pandemic that requires that the relatives of the Covid-19 victim to keep away, leading to a solitary death and differentiated funeral practices. Given this, the Federal Attorney for Citizens’ Rights (PFDC / MPF) alerted the Brazilian State about the need for measures to prevent the enlargement of a considerable contingent of cases of missing persons in the context of the pandemic. This alert came in response to the Joint Ordinance 1/2020, of the National Council of Justice and the Ministry of Health, which allowed exceptional procedures for burial and cremation of bodies during the pandemic of the new coronavirus in Brazil. The Ordinance authorized health establishments, in the absence of family members or persons known to the deceased, to send the bodies directly to the cemeteries to be buried or cremated without the obligation to make a civil death record, which put at risk the possibilities of identification of remains. The Center for Anthropology and Forensic Archeology at Unifesp (Federal University of São Paulo) issued a technical note warning of the danger of “summary execution events and other serious human rights violations, especially those practiced against prisoners, homeless and indigenous people who would not be properly registered by the State”. The Ordinance was replaced by another that is more sensitive to these issues. (https://atos.cnj.jus.br/atos/detalhar/3309)

The Program for Placement and Identifying Missing Persons in Amazonas – PLID / AM, carried out by the State Prosecutor’s Office, has been working since the beginning of the pandemic with the social services of the Hospitals and Emergencies in the Amazonian Capital. The objective has been to find relatives of hospitalized or dead patients without identification or contact with known family members. (https://www.mpam.mp.br/noticias-portal/slides-noticias2/12992-covid-19-programa-de-localizacao-de-desaparecidos-do-mpam-ajuda-a-encontrar-familias-de-pessoas-internadas#.XsfiANaSk2w). Other programs and NGOs are drawing the attention of the public authorities to the effects of death and funeral practices under a health emergency to protect the rights of the victims’ relatives, especially concerning the right to memory and the truth. Given the various occurrences of lack of identification, exchange of corpses, theft of bodies and other anomalies that occurred during this pandemic, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urges States to preserve the memory of the dead and guarantee the right to the truth, justice, and reparation for the relatives of those who lost their lives as victims of Covid-19. (https://www.bol.uol.com.br/noticias/2020/05/20/os-cadaveres-da-covid-19-estados-devem-garantir-ritual-funerario-as-familias-diz-cidh.htm?cmpid=copiaecola)

The pandemic and consequent quarantine requires new reflections on the theme of missing persons and enforced disappearance. If the institutional structure does not identify the deceased and there is no traceability as to the causes of their deaths and the location where these people were buried because of the State’s omission, we will face numerous cases of enforced disappearance. The rupture caused by death without the right to traditional farewell rituals, corpses in sealed coffins and collective graves generate new responsibilities for the State to guarantee the proper identification of the bodies. Besides, due to the biological bomb that became prisons, the disappearance in these environments must be considered as possible and even probable, exacerbating the crisis of lack of investigation regarding enforced disappearance in Brazil. Thus, the corollary of the pandemic goes far beyond economic or health issues and touches on the right to memory and the protection of human rights at all levels.

*Simone Rodrigues Pinto is a political scientist and senior professor at the University of Brasilia. Tradução Luana Bittencourt.


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