Police on trial in Brazil for 1992 prison 'massacre'

Twenty-six military police officers were to go on trial here Monday for the alleged execution-style killing of inmates during Brazil's deadliest prison uprising, which claimed the lives of 111 prisoners.

The officers, most of them now retired, are specifically blamed for the deaths of 15 prisoners, who died in pavilion 9 of Sao Paulo's Carandiru penitentiary during an operation to quell a revolt on October 2, 1992. The incident became known as the "Carandiru massacre."

"Clearly there was a massacre, an execution. The inmates were killed without an opportunity to defend themselves," the G1 website quoted Fernando Pereira da Silva, a prosecution official, as saying.

But the defense argues that the police officers fired in self-defense after being threatened and assaulted by the prisoners.

All the officers involved in the operation were unharmed. In addition to the 111 prisoners killed, some 87 others were injured.

Survivors claimed that police fired on inmates who had already surrendered or were trying to hide in their cells.

Only the commanding officer of the operation, Colonel Ubiratan Guimaraes, was initially sentenced to 632 years in jail for his mishandling of the revolt and the subsequent killings.

But in 2006, a Brazilian court voided the conviction because of mistrial claims. Later that year, Guimaraes was found dead in his apartment under unclear circumstances.

A total of 79 military police officers are to stand trial in various stages.

The massacre in what was then Latin America's biggest prison with 8,000 inmates was chronicled in a 2003 film directed by Argentine-born Brazilian Hector Babenco.

It sparked outrage among the prison inmates and prosecutors said it was a key factor in the establishment of a criminal gang known as First Command of the Capital (PCC) in 1993.

The PCC is believed to have ordered the death of the director of the prison at the time, Jose Ismael Pedrosa.

From the prison, PCC bosses coordinated a series of assaults on police stations and public buildings which left more than 170 people dead and paralyzed Sao Paulo for four days in May 2006, before spreading to other Brazilian cities.

Scores of civilians suspected of criminal backgrounds were gunned down in a subsequent wave of police reprisal attacks.

Late last year, the PCC was also blamed for a wave of police killings and bus burnings.

The Carandiru prison was demolished in 2002.

With a population of 194 million, Brazil has 550,000 people behind bars in more than 1,000 jails, one of the world's largest prison populations.

Some 217,000 detainees are awaiting trial, according to the United Nations,

A UN panel invited by the Brazilian government in late March blamed the problem in part on a judicial culture that sees incarceration as the first recourse, including when minors are involved.

As a result of excessive incarceration, the commission said, "detention facilities were usually overcrowded. In some cases, the number of detainees exceeded the capacity by 100 per cent."