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LATIN AMERICA | 01-04-2019 15:59

Rio Governor: Brazilian police using snipers against armed suspects in city

Controversial Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel said in an interview Sunday that snipers were already operating in the state.

A Brazilian state lawmaker is asking the public prosecutors' office to open an investigation into the police's use of sharpshooters to kill alleged criminals in Rio de Janeiro.

Lawmaker Renata Souza leads the human rights commission in Rio's lower house. She requested an investigation Monday, saying Brazil doesn't permit the death penalty and the use of sharpshooters is illegal.

Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel said in an interview Sunday that snipers were already operating in the state, having been deployed to shoot armed suspects.

The idea of deploying snipers had been perceived as merely a campaign promise, despite an outcry by human rights activists, but Witzel said that since taking office in January he has put it into practice.

He called drug-traffickers "narco-terrorists" and said he would empower policemen to shoot down any criminal seen carrying a rifle.

"The snipers are used in absolute secrecy. They are already used, but it is not spoken of. The principle is clear: if an individual carries an assault rifle, he must be neutralised immediately by lethal means," Witzel said in the interview with the daily O Globo.

Witzel was elected to office in October after campaigning on a promise to crack down on crime. His tough stance on matters of public security often aligns with that of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Rio de Janeiro, which successfully hosted the 2016 Olympic Games, has since faced a resurgence of violence, with frequent shoot-outs involving drug gangs and security forces.

In January and February 2019, Witzel's first two months in office, 305 people were killed by police, according to government statistics, or one such death every four and a half hours.

That is a 17.6 percent increase compared to the same period in 2018, and a record high for the 16 years that statistics on police-involved killings have been kept.

"The figures don't worry me. I have confidence in the police," Witzel said. "The criminals provoke shootings just to sow panic."

A 51-year-old former judge, Witzel was a political unknown just months ago.

In the interview with O Globo, the governor did not hide his own presidential ambitions.

"I was with President Bolsonaro Tuesday and I said to him: If he is not a candidate [for re-election], I am ready to give continuity to a programme of growth for our country," he said.

Asked Bolsonaro's reaction to those ambitions, Witzel said: "He laughed. I think he too was thinking about what he is going to do."

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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