Ever since a video and photos of a naked, unconscious 16-year-old girl surrounded by dozens of men were shared on social media in Brazil last week, the case of apparent rape has riveted and outraged the world. And in a country where many rapes, if not most, go unreported, the case has shown how social media can humiliate a victim, yet also bring heinous crimes to light.
There has been a cascade of developments in the past few days as public anger over the lack of progress in the case has grown. Protests calling for an end to rape culture have proliferated across Brazilian cities. Politicians have called for heavier punishments for gang rape and have introduced legislation to make that happen. Brazil's new president said he would create a division of the federal police to focus on crimes against women. Some people have called for the alleged rapists to be castrated; others questioned whether the girl was really even raped, saying she was a willing participant and a drug-abuser.
Police have arrested two men, one of whom was supposedly the girl's boyfriend, and have warrants out for four others. One of those four, Raphael de Assis Duarte Belo, 41, turned himself in to police on Wednesday, his brother told the newspaper O Globo. But police now say they had some of those four in custody earlier and released them. The lead police investigator has been replaced amid accusations of negligence and callousness toward the girl, who has stopped cooperating with the investigation.
On Sunday, the victim went on television to give her side of the story. "I fell asleep and woke up in a different place with a man underneath me, another one on top and two other holding my hands and several people laughing at me. Also, I was drugged and confused," she said. "There were many people armed and many boys laughing and talking."
"They robbed me. They robbed me but not of any material property but of physical property."
She told police that 33 men took part in her rape, which occurred in the early morning hours of May 21. She didn't go to the police until the photos and video went out on social media several days later. As such, a medical exam that was performed on her was unlikely to provide conclusive evidence about whether she was raped. Cristiana Bento, head of the civil police unit on crimes against children and adolescents, gave an impassioned rebuttal to those who questioned that a rape occurred. “It’s proved, not by the forensic report but by other proof,” she told reporters at police headquarters on Monday. “Which proof? The video. The video proves sexual abuse, as does the victim’s deposition."
The girl is the mother of a 3-year-old child, and many see that as evidence that she has been raped before.
The police had assigned Alessandro Thiers to investigate the case. The victim, in Sunday night's television appearance, said Thiers laid out images from the attack in front of her and asked, bluntly, “So? Talk.” Meanwhile, his team did not search the cellphones of people being questioned in the case, or they might have found more photos and videos to help identify others who were present that night.
The newspaper Extra reported that Thiers wrote, in leaked WhatsApp messages apparently addressed to colleagues, that the complainant “knows that we have strong evidence saying there wasn’t any rape.” He added, the paper said, that “many people, including the teenager herself, confirmed that she went to the [favelas] often, with direct and intimate contact with drug dealers in the area.” Favelas are densely populated Brazilian slums.
She is now reported to be in witness protection because of death threats.
At a news conference Friday, before Thiers was relieved of his role, Washington Post correspondent Dom Phillips asked Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes and Rio de Janeiro's state security secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, how it was possible that four suspects who had been identified by police had not been arrested yet. More than 200,000 people have watched the clip — a testament to the anger many feel toward the police's handling of the investigation.
More than 100,000 people shared photos on Facebook of one man alleged to have circulated the initial images of the girl on social media, and demanded his punishment. Others, however, used social media to blame the girl — and not just men.
A woman using the name Ny Tavares on Facebook, and whose profile said she is a police officer, posted a series of accusations before deleting her account. In the post, she said the 16-year-old girl was a member of a gang that runs drugs in a favela:
"From the photos I've had access to, she didn't mix with them, she was one of them! It's her when I enter with my troop into the favela, at 16 with her little face, that passes by us, counts how many we are, and how many rifles we have, to inform the vagabonds. It's her who gives my location so they can position themselves better. It's this type of girl who goes to the baile [late-night parties playing 'funk' music, a Rio hip-hop style, often sponsored by gangs], who gets involved with drugs, who gets thick with marginals and you see, she is part of the gang!"
The case is unfolding at a time of heightened concern over a renewed wave of violence in the favelas. Hit by low oil prices, Brazil is suffering through its worst economic crisis in nearly a century and, as a result, is cutting back on public spending. About $550 million was slashed this year from the budget for police and special forces that heavily patrol the favelas, despite massive spending on the upcoming Olympic Games.
On Tuesday, the Brazilian Senate approved a bill that would increase the possible jail sentence for gang rape to 25 years from six to 10. Tuesday was also the first day in office for Fátima Pelaes, the new secretary of women's policies. Pelaes has spoken out against abortion in cases of rape, and, in a report she gave to parliament in 2010, she told the story of how her mother was raped in jail and said she was the product of that "crime of passion."
Almost 50,000 rapes were reported in Brazil in 2014, although most are thought to go unreported. In Rio de Janeiro, they occurred at a rate of 13 per day.