“Do I remember? Christmas Day last year?” repeated prisoner Rafael Braga Vieira, slowly. All the while, he fidgeted and toyed with the glass table in front of him. After a pause, he said, “I remember. It was quiet. Just a normal day. There was no party, no happiness. When it hit me it was Christmas, there was just more sadness.”
For the second year, Vieira, 26, is facing the holidays in prison in Rio de Janeiro, far from his mother and six siblings, who live on the other side of the city in the economically deprived north end of the city.
But he is no ordinary prisoner. After 18 months, he remains the only Brazilian tried and convicted in connection to the mass demonstrations and civic unrest that brought Rio to a standstill in June 2013. It was widely reported that as many as 300,000 people were on the streets the night that he was arrested, June 20. But for all the confusion, vandalism and civil disobedience that took place, Vieira — a street collector carrying two bottles of cleaning products — was the only one who was put behind bars.
He was sentenced to five years for carrying material that could be used to make a Molotov cocktail. Police found him with a bottle of bleach and the household cleaning product Pinho Sol, the local version of Pine-Sol — which experts said had insufficient amounts of ethanol to make an explosive. Moreover, they were in plastic bottles, not glass bottles.
“I had no idea what was happening in the rest of the city,” he said. He had gone into an abandoned building, where he slept during the week after working in downtown Rio, when he was approached by police. “It was deserted. I put my bag down, and I only saw the Pinho Sol as I went out. I picked it up, and I just heard someone shout, ‘Hey, kid, come here.’ I explained to them I was a worker. I started to shout. They hit me around the head. Was it from prejudice? I don’t know. They called me kid, neguinho [little blacky].”
Though Vieira did not take part in the protests, they were inspired by Brazilians like him. Starting in São Paulo in response to a proposed 20-centavo ($0.07) rise in bus fares, the demonstrations spread across Brazil as an outcry against the increasingly tough conditions for the country’s poorest. Even a small increase in bus fares would add to the cost of the long commutes of manual and domestic workers earning the minimum salary of R$724 ($270) a month. The protests rapidly created global headlines as a symbol of Brazil’s struggle with inequality even as its economy grows, especially as the country preparing to host the World Cup soccer tournament.
“Rafael was sleeping there that night not because he didn’t have a home,” said Simone Quirino, a lawyer with the Institute of Human Rights Defenders, which is representing Vieira. “He had a home. But his own city, the dynamic of the city, doesn’t give him access. It wasn’t that he didn’t have any other option. He was working. Often, the system simply doesn’t allow for people to work and return home every night. That’s why he was there.”
His lawyers believe he was persecuted because of his background as a poor black man who had a record of petty crimes. “The imprisonment of Rafael has a political character. He was arrested as an example,” said Quirino. “This is a picture of the policy of incarceration promoted in favor of blacks, poor and favela residents in our city, who have little right to a voice and no rights of access to the city.”
A team from the Institute of Human Rights Defenders is hoping to take the case out of Rio state and to the courts in Brasília. Amnesty International has highlighted his case, and supporters are taking his cause around the country with a National Campaign for the Freedom of Rafael Braga Vieira. In November the campaign began national activities with various movements and groups holding events in his name in states across Brazil.
“We soon realized that this was an emblematic case,” said Ronilso Pacheco, one of the campaign coordinators. “Rafael is not the only young, poor black man with precarious work to be held in prison without having been properly heard, without committing what they alleged that he committed, a deliberate target of racism, arbitrariness, of undue and unjust use of power and selectivity by the state.
But as Vieira becomes more widely known, his circumstances remain hard. The cost of traveling from his family’s suburb of Penha to his semiopen prison in Bangu, in western Rio, means his relatives are unable to visit him, a situation common among Rio’s prison population.
He has, however, earned working rights from prison. He spends his weekdays working at the João Tancredo law firm downtown, where he tidies and cleans the office.
“It’s better now,” he said. “I was at Bangu behind bars, in the closed jail. Now at least I can work … I have to be back at 8 p.m. I can’t miss it by a minute.”
He described how there were not enough beds for every inmate and decent food was expensive. “There were about 27 people in the same cell. It was really full,” he said. “And I couldn’t afford the expensive food in the canteen. But I survived.”
Gaining the right to work was a small but very important victory for Vieira, whose recent appeal succeeded in reducing his sentence only by four months. His lawyers are determined to win more. “What we understand as our main challenge is his liberty,” Pacheco said. “We disagree with his conviction, and we will not let the state rest until he is free.”
Originally published by Al Jazeera America