Police tortured suspect in Amazon disappearance, family say

NORTH ATALAIA – Family members of the only person arrested in the disappearance of a British journalist and indigenous leader in the Amazon said on Friday he was innocent and alleged police were torturing him in an attempt to extract a confession.

Freelance journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous leader Bruno Pereira were last seen Sunday morning in the Javari Valley, Brazil’s second-largest indigenous territory, located in a remote area on the Peru-Colombia border. Both men belonged to the community of Sao Rafael. They were returning by boat to the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte but never arrived.

The family claims of fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, were the latest development in a disappearance that has drawn international attention, a search involving multiple agencies and criticism from Brazilian authorities for a allegedly slow response. The family’s comments, made to The Associated Press, also come a day after witnesses told the AP conflicting claims about de Oliveira.

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De Oliveira was arrested Tuesday at his home in the riverside community of São Gabriel, near where the couple disappeared on Sunday. He was initially arrested for illegal possession of firearms, but police have since said he is now considered a suspect in the disappearance and is being held at a police station in Atalaia do Norte.

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

“He told me he was at home when they handcuffed him,” Osenei da Costa de Oliveira said, speaking outside the police station where his brother is being held. “Then they put him on a boat under the sun and started to go to Atalaia do Norte. When they reached the Curupira stream, they put him on another boat. Then they beat him, tortured him, put his head under water, stepped on his leg and pepper sprayed his face, they also drugged him twice, but I don’t know what they used.

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

The Amazonas State Public Security Secretariat, which oversees local police, said in a statement it would not comment on the family’s accusations as the investigation into the disappearance was now being led by federal police. . An email sent Friday to federal police seeking comment did not receive an immediate response.

Brazilian authorities are under enormous pressure to find Phillips and Pereira. A growing number of celebrities, politicians, civil society groups and international news organizations have called on the police, army and navy to step up search efforts.

Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira’s mother, Maria de Fátima da Costa, said she was at the port of Atalaia do Norte when her son arrived with the police. He was taken from the boat with a balaclava, could barely walk on his own and was soaked, she said.

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

She also said the blood that police say was found in her son’s boat likely came from a pig he had slaughtered days before he was arrested. Authorities said the blood was being analyzed in a lab.

In a statement on Friday, federal police said they were also analyzing human material found in the Itaquai River, near the port of Atalaia do Norte. No other details were provided.

Members of an indigenous group of guardians, 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 weapons at them. Paulo Marubo, the president of an association of indigenous peoples in the Javari Valley, Univaja, also told the AP that Phillips photographed the men at the time.

The suspect’s family also disputed the allegation of wielding weapons. Father-in-law Francisco Conceição de Freitas said he and de Oliveira were on a fishing boat together and his son-in-law waved an oar, not a gun, towards the group that included Phillips and Pereira. De Freitas said his son-in-law did this because they felt threatened by the guards, who de Freitas said were armed, and wanted to give the impression that they too were armed. The carrying of weapons, whether legally or illegally owned, is common in the Amazon.

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The family said they had not fished illegally inside the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, an area frequented for illegal fishing and hunting. The family also said de Oliveira had no criminal record and his only contact with law enforcement was being detained for a few hours under the unfounded suspicion that he was carrying drugs.

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

Amazonas state police have long been accused of extrajudicial executions and unlawful raids. Since Governor Wilson Lima took office in 2019, three massacres involving local officers have taken place. One of them, in October 2020, resulted in 17 deaths in the capital Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon. Police have denied wrongdoing in all three cases.

Last year, the Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo reported that local police in Tabatinga, the nearest large town to Atalaia do Norte, had carried out seven extrajudicial executions which they claimed were linked to the murder of an officer. Some of the victims were tortured and their relatives received death threats. The police never responded to the charges.

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Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and recently worked on a book on Amazon conservation.

Pereira has long operated in the Javari Valley for Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency. He oversaw their regional office and coordination of uncontacted indigenous groups before going on leave to help local indigenous people defend themselves against illegal fishers and poachers. For years, Pereira had received threats for his work.

____ AP journalist Mauricio Savarese contributed reporting from Sao Paulo.

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