Police tortured suspect in Amazon disappearance, family says

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ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — Family members of the sole person to be arrested in the disappearance of a British journalist and Indigenous official in the Amazon said Friday that he was innocent and alleged that police were torturing him to try to force a confession.

Freelance journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous official Bruno Pereira were last seen on Sunday morning in the Javari Valley, Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory, which sits in an isolated area bordering Peru and Colombia. They were both in Sao Rafael. The men were supposed to return by boat to Atalaia Do Norte, but they never reached their destination.

The claims of the family of fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, were the latest development in a disappearance that has garnered international attention, a search involving several agencies and criticism of Brazilian authorities for an allegedly slow response. The claims of the family were made to The Associated Press on Tuesday, a day after contradictory accusations against de Oliveira were made by witnesses.

De Oliveira was arrested on Tuesday at his home in the Sao Gabriel riverine community, close to where the pair went missing on Sunday. Although initially he had been arrested for illegal firearm possession, police later stated that he is now being investigated as a suspect in the disappearance. He was currently being held in Atalaia Do Norte police station.

Osenei da Costa de Oliveira, 41, also a fisherman, said Friday he had visited his brother in jail.

“He told me he was at his house when they handcuffed him,” said Osenei da Costa de Oliveira, speaking outside the police station where his brother is being held. They put him in a boat and started to take him to Atalaia Do Norte. They put him onto another boat when they got to the Curupira river. They beat him and tortured him. Then, they put him on another boat, submerged his head in water, and then pepper-sprayed their faces with pepper spray. They also drugged him twice, but I don’t know what they used.”

“They wanted him to confess but he’s innocent,” Osenei da Costa de Oliveira added.

The public security secretariat of Amazonas state, which oversees local police, said in a statement it would not comment on the family’s accusations because the investigation into the disappearance was now being handled by the Federal Police. On Friday, the Federal Police did not respond to requests for comment.

Brazilian authorities are coming under enormous pressure to find Phillips and Pereira. Celebrities, politicians, and civil society organizations are calling for more support from the navy, police and army in their search.

The mother of Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, Maria de Fatima da Costa, said she was at the Atalaia do Norte port when her son arrived with police. She said that he was wearing a hood and could not walk independently on the boat. He also was wet.

“I told the police he was not a criminal to be treated like that,” she told the AP.

She also said that blood that police have said was found in her son’s boat was likely from a pig he had slaughtered a few days before being arrested. The blood is being tested at a laboratory, according to authorities.

In a statement Friday, Federal Police said they were also analyzing human matter found in the Itaquai River, near Atalaia do Norte’s port. There were no further details.

Members of Indigenous group of watchmen, who were with Pereira and Phillips on Saturday, the day before they disappeared, told the AP on Thursday that de Oliveira and two other men had brandished guns at them. Paulo Marubo (president of Univaja Javari Valley Association of Indigenous Peoples) also said to the AP that Phillips had taken photos of the men.

The suspect’s family also disputed the claim of brandishing weapons. Francisco Conceicao de Freitas, the father-in law, said that he was on a boat with de Oliveira and that de Oliveira waved an oar at Pereira and Phillips. De Freitas claimed that his son-in law did it because he felt threatened by watchmen who de Freitas stated were armed and wanted to appear as though they were also armed. It is not uncommon to have legal and illegal weapons in Amazon.

The family said they had not been illegally fishing inside the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, a frequented area for illegal fishing and hunting. De Oliveira has no criminal records and was only detained once for unfounded suspicion that he was transporting illegal drugs.

Phillips and Pereira had been speaking with people just outside the protected area, but never entered it, according to multiple people whom the AP interviewed in the area.

The Amazonas state police have long been accused of extrajudicial killings and unlawful raids. Governor. Wilson Lima took office in 2019, three massacres involving local officers have taken place. One of them, in October 2020, ended in 17 deaths in capital Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon. All three instances were denied by police.

Last year, Brazilian daily Folha de S.Paulo reported that local police in Tabatinga, the closest major city to Atalaia do Norte, had made seven extrajudicial killings they thought had links to the murder of an officer. Some victims were tortured and relatives received death threats. The police never replied to these accusations.

Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has most recently been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon.

Pereira has long operated in Javari Valley for the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency. Pereira was responsible for the management of their Javari Valley regional office, as well as coordination between isolated Indigenous groups. He then went on leave to assist local Indigenous communities in fighting illegal fishing and poachers. Pereira was threatened for years over his work.


AP journalist Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.


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