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In Brazil, little note of slaying

SAO PAULO -- The slaying of a man who testified about police death squads to a UN human rights official was condemned by international rights groups yesterday, but barely registered in a country where police abuses are routine.

Almost every day, police operations in crowded shantytowns across Brazil claim lives and create an image of urban warfare between the police and the poor, but many Brazilians contend that the victims of police killings must have done something wrong.

Groups ranging from the United Nations to Amnesty International deplored Thursday's killing of Gerson de Jesus Bispo in northeastern Brazil. He was the second person killed after speaking to Asma Jahangir, the UN special investigator on extrajudicial executions.

Bispo's killing a day after Jahangir left South America's largest country "is unfortunately indicative of the situation" the UN official found during her three-week mission to nine Brazilian cities, said Jose Diaz, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The slaying garnered front-page headlines in Brazil's largest newspapers, but human rights groups doubted it would generate a domestic outcry.

"There is a culture in Brazil that the way of dealing with a criminal is for that person to die," explained Damian Platt, Brazil campaigner for Amnesty International.

Police in Sao Paulo, a sprawling metropolis of 18 million, killed 487 people through June, a 78 percent increase from the same period last year. In Rio de Janeiro, police killed 815 people through August, a 40 percent increase.

Acides Ney Inez, who runs a streetside newsstand, said law enforcement officials often are blamed for being too violent, but he contends that only criminals complain about police brutality.

"I didn't read about this execution case, but no one's killed by chance. There's always a good reason," said Inez, 35.

Bispo was investigating last year's killing of his brother and a friend. He met with Jahangir on Sept. 20. Bispo was killed Thursday by motorcycle gunmen in Santo Antonio de Jesus in Bahia State, 1,200 miles northeast of Sao Paulo.

Another person who met with Jahandir, Flavio Manoel da Silva, was gunned down Sept. 27.

Jahandir was officially invited to Brazil to investigate police involvement in arbitrary executions. She discovered "a gruesome picture which is not worthy of a fit, democratic Brazil," she said.

Brazilian police deny using death squads, but are well-known for heavy-handed tactics in the shantytowns controlled by armed drug gangs. Police officials did not immediately return phone messages yesterday.

Bispo was killed as a congressional committee started investigating reports of death squads in the impoverished northeast. Committee members contend that most of the death squads are headed by current or former military police acting on behalf of businessmen, politicians, and drug dealers, said Marcelo D'Avila, a committee adviser.

"These squads, and those who hire them, usually operate in urban areas with a self-appointed mission of eliminating homosexuals, blacks, and poor people," he said. "They assume a social-cleansing mission."

The administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has pledged to improve Brazil's human rights record, but specialists say there has been no increase in the number of police prosecuted for crimes since the former union leader took office in January.

"It's not an easy problem to solve," said James Cavallaro of Brazil's Global Justice Center. "We're talking about killer police, professional killers who wear a uniform and get paid by the state."

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