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Joao Helio Murder Stirs Brazil
Child killing prompts debate on legal majority
Alan Mota (al0021)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-15 14:19 (KST)   
It all began with a brutal murder -- even by Rio de Janeiro's standards -- when a six-year-old child, Joao Helio Fernandes Vieites, died after getting tangled in a seatbelt while trying to escape from the back seat of his mother's car as it was taken at gunpoint. The thieves drove away with the car, dragging the little boy for several blocks, around 7 kilometers, according to authorities.

The murder caused revolt and commotion all over Brazil and even gained the international media's attention. And after severe media exposure and political exploitation, the crime's repercussion has escalated to the point where the law on legal majority and detention time for minors is being discussed in the national congress.

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Since Feb. 8, when the murder took place, "Joao Helio" has probably been one of the most pronounced names in the country. There have been daily discussions on national news programs. A town square has been named after him, soccer teams have paid homage to him during games, and famous people commented on his death and the escalation of violence in the city.

The population rallied and cried, and the police, pushed by the media and politicians, went on flashy incursions into the shantytowns of the city -- the "favelas" -- desperately looking for the murderers. Several suspects were arrested, until five of them finally confessed their participation in the crime, and among them was a minor. That changed everything.

Shocked by the brutality of the crime, the population began to question the efficacy and legitimacy of one of the pillars of the "Statute of the Child and Adolescent" -- a set of laws and regulations introduced in 1990 by the Brazilian government, supported by UNICEF, and considered a major breakthrough in legal protection for minors in Brazil -- the legal majority.

The concept of legal majority in Brazil, as in many other countries, is based on the idea that before reaching a certain age, a person is not mature enough to answer for the consequences of his actions, so he should be judged in a different way, that takes in consideration other aspects of his life and not only the law, and that focuses on recovery instead of punishment.

In some countries the legal majority varies according to the situation -- for example, the legal age for drinking in the U.S. is 21 years old, while the legal age for driving is 16. But in Brazil the legal age is only one -- 18 years old -- for everything. And that represents a major difference in terms of sentencing. In Joao Helio's case, for example, while the legal adults involved in the crime may face sentences of up to 40 years, the 16-year old minor involved would, at the worst -- be kept in juvenile hall until he turns 21 and then be released.

This questioning of the statute reached congress, and a nation-wide discussion between politicians, jurists, lawyers and judges took place. It involved two main possibilities: One was the reduction of the legal majority age, which would preserve the laws of the statute. The other was to change the statute and increase the detention period for minors, without changing the majority age.

The first proposal was initially set aside by politicians, but now the Brazilian Senator Demostenes Torres has presented a plan to reduce the majority age from 18 to 16 years old in cases of serious crimes such as drug dealing, kidnapping or rape, bringing it back to light.

The second proposal, more seriously considered, has gained support from state governors, especially those of violent states such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and involves increasing the detention period for minors that commit serious crimes to 8 or ten years, in special prisons, even after they turn 18.

But the real issue has been the political aura that the murder gained. Almost every major politician in Brazil has taken part on the issue, from the president, Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, who has been asking for caution in dealing with changes in the law, to the old-time senator Antonio Carlos Magalhaes, who proposed the creation of a "crime victims fund," and that it be named after Joao Helio.

The president of the Brazilian congress also manifested his opinion in public, saying he favored the increase of the detention period. Whatever the opinions of the politicians are, hardly any of them decided to go against the flow and state a different opinion.

The media also had its share of impartiality. Almost no major newspaper or TV broadcaster has taken a neutral position on the subject. The little boy's family has been appearing frequently on TV, their cries echoing on the nightly news, over and over again. The ones that dare to bring up human rights, or suggest that maybe the statute is not wrong, but that its application has been inefficient, and that the state has been concentrating on punishment instead of prevention, are put aside at best.

What happened to Joao Helio was indeed barbaric. But when the population -- especially in Rio de Janeiro -- seems to ask for punishment instead of justice, and the media and the politicians, the ones that could and should be the voice of reason, take advantage of the situation to go along with the crowd and make the headlines, then there's not much hope left. If all the hatred and thirst for revenge continues to escalate, the society runs the risk of becoming as barbaric as the criminals it now despises.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alan Mota

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