Brazil is convicted of femicide in pioneering international court decision

Brazil was tried for femicide and lost: the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recognized, in a pioneering decision, the international responsibility of the State for the murder of Márcia Barbosa de Souza 23 years ago.

Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

On June 17, 1998, around 7 pm, Márcia received a phone call from her tormentor. He had just arrived in João Pessoa. Aércio Pereira da Lima, then state deputy for the local PFL (now DEM), wanted to meet her. Shortly thereafter, they were together in a motel.

The next morning, a pedestrian saw someone taking a body out of a vehicle in a vacant lot in a neighborhood in the capital of Paraíba. It was Marcia. The autopsy pointed to suffocation as a cause of death, preceded by beatings.

The judicial outcome is historic for two reasons, according to Melina Fachin, a professor of constitutional law at the Federal University of Paraná who served as a technical witness in the trial entitled “[Márcia] Barbosa de Souza versus Brazil”.

First, the country, as a state apparatus, has never been convicted of femicide before, says Fachin. “And it is also the first case that the court has tried on the issue of immunity, a super important precedent for establishing this institute in the light of human rights.”

It refers to the parliamentary immunity that would have delayed the criminal prosecution of the murderer by almost a decade.

With four consecutive terms, Aércio had the same time in the Legislative Assembly of Paraíba as Márcia had in life. At that time, it was understood that congressmen could only be criminally prosecuted with the consent of their peers. The homicidal deputy, as the Justice would conclude years later, was protected by his countrymen.

Even then, jurists pointed out that this immunity regime violated international standards for the protection of human rights.

Is it reasonable, in the event of a common crime, to make the prosecution of congressmen subject to their housemates? The provision “converts from an institutional prerogative into a personal privilege, unacceptable and inadmissible due to the logic and principles of a true democratic rule of law”, wrote lawyer Flávia Piovesan, now part of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in an article published by Folha in 2001.

That same year, a constitutional amendment determined that the courts no longer need the approval of deputies or senators to prosecute a colleague of theirs for crimes that occurred after the beginning of their term. Parliamentarians, however, can still suspend the case, if they wish.

The court’s verdict doesn’t just focus on the victim and their relatives, explains Melina Fachin. The State is obliged, for example, to create a national plan to sensitize agents who investigate crimes from a gender perspective.

These are not immediate changes, precisely because they are structural, and depend on the doomed country’s cooperation. “If the State doesn’t take measures, the court will give it a tug of the ear, but we don’t have, in international law, many claws and teeth,” says Fachin.

If Brazil ignores the decision, however, the IACHR does not have the power to impose sanctions or take other punitive measures against the country. At the most, it can suggest that the OAS (Organization of American States), to which it is linked, expel a member. But that never happened.

Aércio always pleaded not guilty to Marcia’s murder. He admitted that he did meet the young woman on the date, but not at a motel, but at her house. They would have discussed job opportunities, according to their version.

The reports about the episode painted a stereotyped version of the poor girl from the interior, with a history of drug addiction. The deputy himself used this image by denying the authorship of the murder. All at a time when the country did not even have specific laws to combat violence against women, such as Maria da Penha and Feminicide.

The court considers this point. It rescues positions taken in the past, “on the importance of recognizing, making visible and rejecting the gender stereotypes through which, in cases of violence against women, victims are assimilated, for example, to the profile of a gang member and/ or a prostitute and/or a ‘anyone’, and are not considered important enough to be investigated, otherwise making the woman responsible or deserving of having been attacked”.

Before the Jury Court, Aércio’s lawyer asked that more than 150 pages of newspaper articles that cited Márcia’s overdose and alleged suicide, “with the intention of affecting her image”, be incorporated into the case file.

The defender would describe the victim as a “prostitute” and Aércio as “the father of a family” who “let himself be carried away by the charms of a young woman” and who, in a moment of anger, would have “made a mistake”.

The strategy refers to cases such as Angela Diniz, a socialite from Minas Gerais who was killed in 1976 by her partner, Doca Street. The confessed killer’s lawyers used the “legitimate defense of honor” thesis. They argued, for example, that Angela was a “lustful Venus” fueled by cocaine and alcohol.

“We have to ward off and fight institutional gender-based violence,” says prosecutor Gabriela Manssur, one of the top authorities on violence against women in Brazil.

The National Justice Council itself has just adopted a protocol for judgments related to gender issues, “precisely to avoid this type of situation, the reversal of roles”, says Manssur. “The person of the victim cannot be judged, but the facts.”

Aércio was re-elected in 1998, the year of the crime. The feminist lobby for him to stand trial intensified in the years of what would be his final term. In vain. The Legislative Assembly colleagues still did not allow the process to proceed.

The former deputy was only brought to a jury in 2007, after finishing his legislative journey. Jurors found him guilty in the first instance. He appealed in freedom and died the following year, aged 64, without having stepped into prison.

The Legislative Assembly of Paraíba “considered it pertinent to pay homage to the former deputy”, punctuates the sentence of the international organization. He even decreed a three-day mourning period in the state. Marcia’s body was found in a thicket. Aércio’s, veiled in the Main Hall of the parliamentary house.

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