A tragedy that shames the Brazilian justice system

On the morning of October 2, the rector of the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Professor Luiz Carlos Cancellier de Olivo, parked his car in the Beiramar Shopping Centre in Florianópolis. Shortly afterwards he committed suicide by leaping to his death from the top floor into the open central space of the building.

Professor Cancillier had been suspended from his post leading one of Brazil’s most successful public universities last month. On September 14, Federal Police had arrested the rector and six other colleagues and hauled them off to prison, where they were held for a day. The rector was then forbidden to enter the campus of the university with which he had been associated since the start of his career. Ten days after his incarceration, Professor Cancillier wrote an article for O Globo newspaper describing the humiliating and degrading experience to which he had been subjected in the penitentiary. He also observed that none of those involved had been allowed to present evidence to an internal inquiry, that the case against them was based on depositions that they had not been able to question in accordance with their rights to a full defence, that there had been selective public divulgation and withholding of relevant information by the federal police investigating the case, and denunciations had been included that related to the period before he became rector.

The case revolved around an alleged misappropriation of 80 million reais destined for the Brazilian Open University distance learning program. The rector was not himself accused of being a member of the “gang” directly responsible for this, but was accused of obstructing the internal investigation by the Federal Police Delegate in charge of the operation, dubbed Operation Deaf Ears, Erika Mialik Marena.

This is yet another case of what has now become the rule in Brazil. People are being thrown into gaol under circumstances in which there is no justification in terms of risk of flight and absolutely nothing has yet been established about their guilt or innocence in a court of law. Allegations are made public, given greater credibility by arrest and imprisonment, and then taken up by the media. The reputation of the accused is destroyed before they have had any chance to defend themselves. In the case of Professor Cancillier, the pain of his victimisation proved more than he could bear, despite the fact that he received many messages of support from members of the public appreciative of his achievements as well as from colleagues.

The case has rightly produced an outcry from both the academic and the legal community. The Santa Catarina section of the Order of Attorneys  of Brazil (OAB, the Brazilian bar association) has issued a statement that includes the following points that constitute a much wider critique of the way justice is now being administered in Brazil:

The time has come for Brazilian society and the judicial community to have a serious debate about the spectacular and mediatized form in which provisional incarceration is being employed in Brazil, even before the accused have been heard or given an opportunity to present their defence. Reputations constructed through hard work over many years of sacrifice can be completely destroyed by a single newspaper headline. For innocent persons, the damage is irreparable. They are simply left with the shame, the pain and the sense of injustice. The weight of these sentiments can be insupportable.

The National Association of Leaders of Federal Higher Education Institutions (ANDIFES) has issued a strong collective note that expresses its “absolute indignation and disagreement” with the way in which Professor Cancillier was treated, before any process of establishing the facts had been completed. The ANDIFES statement continued:

It is unacceptable that good people, invested with public responsibilities of enormous social consequence, should have their honour destroyed because of excesses in the actions of the state apparatus. It is inadmissible that the country should continue to tolerate police state practices, in which the most fundamental rights of citizens are set aside in the name of a spectacular moralism. Equally intolerable is the campaign that the adversaries of the Brazilian public universities are now waging, disqualifying their achievements and their administrators as justification for abolishing the rights of citizens to free public education. 

Professor Cancillier was a distinguished academic in the legal field himself, specialising in administrative and public law, who was working very actively to secure new sources of finance to compensate for the cuts imposed on the federal universities by the current, unelected, government. This case does indeed call for an intense public debate about the present state of the Brazilian justice system, the social responsibilities of the media, and mounting threats to public higher education.

The tragic fate of the rector has reawakened wider criticisms of the federal police, public prosecutors and judges around the conduct of the Operation Car Wash anti-corruption investigations and related inquiries. Ex-president Lula rapidly added his voice to the chorus of complaint and denunciation. The highly questionable methods employed by federal judge Sérgio Moro and the team of prosecutors working with him in Curitiba are to some extent the personal responsibility of these particular representatives of the Brazilian justice system. But they also reflect basic structural defects in a system that celebrated human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC has pointed out follows the model of the Spanish inquisition rather than the justice systems of modern European societies. Judge Moro is simultaneously the investigating and prosecuting judge and the trial judge who weighs the evidence from both prosecution and defence in considering an appropriate final verdict. Even without other kinds of biases, which certainly include class prejudice in the case of the treatment of ex-president Lula, this contradictory combination of functions diminishes the possibilities of a fair trial for the defendant. The situation is made even worse by the public presentation of accusations without evidence and the mediatization of the whole process as a public spectacle.

Readers who would like to know more about Geoffrey Robertson’s criticisms in relation to Lula’s case can now watch a video of an excellent speech that he made at a meeting in London that I attended last month. It is available at https://www.facebook.com/nocoupinbrazil/videos/733357953540561/.