RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – A teenage girl was locked up on theft charges in an Amazon jail for weeks with 21 men who she said would only let her eat in return for sex, according to authorities, setting off a national scandal over the treatment of women by Brazil's justice system.
The 15-year-old said she was required to have sex with at least two inmates, police spokesman Walrimar Santos said by telephone Thursday from Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River, where the victim was transferred after nearly a month living with male inmates.
By her account, officials did nothing — until the story erupted in the national media and outraged Brazilians demanded her transfer.
"Throwing a 15-year-old girl into a cell with 20 men was a heinous and intolerable act," Brazilian Bar Association president Cezar Britto said in an interview. "It is a serious case of criminal negligence against women, who in Brazil continue to be victims of prejudice."
Santos said the girl was not beaten or injured. But the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, which said it had access to private testimony after her transfer from the jail, reported she was tortured with lit cigarettes on her fingers and bare feet to force her to have sex. Her cellmates cut her hair to make her look more like a boy and difficult to recognize, Estado said.
She said her only reprieve from obligatory sex was on Thursdays — when intimate visits were allowed — and things "calmed down," Estado reported.
Police and human rights officials said the girl was out of touch in Belem and would not speak to reporters. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who may have been victims of sexual assault.
The girl was arrested Oct. 21 on accusations of breaking and entering a house and jailed with male inmates in Abaetetuba, a city of 78,000 outside the Para state capital of Belem.
She was transferred to a jail for women in Belem on Nov. 17, although police claim they requested her transfer earlier but were ignored.
Santos said separate jails for men and women do not exist in most towns in Para — a sprawling, largely lawless state twice the size of France.
Days after the case was divulged, the Brazilian Bar Association announced that a 23-year-old woman had been obliged to share a cell with 70 men in a police detention center in Parauapebas, in southern Para. It was not clear if she was forced to have sex.
Para Gov. Ana Julia Carepa said she was outraged by the alleged abuse at Abaetetuba. She suspended three top police officials pending an investigation and promised that the guilty parties would be "punished in exemplary fashion."
"There's no excuse for what happened," she said in a statement. "I'm also shocked and indignant, as a woman and as governor. ... A woman can never be jailed in the same cell as men."
The federal government on Friday sent a task force of human rights officials to Belem to accompany the investigation after the girl and her family reported receiving death threats.
"First we will guarantee the safety of the minor, who will be included in the program for the Protection of Children and Adolescents threatened with death," Marcia Ustra Soares, a director of the program, told reporters.
The victim's father insisted in a televised interview that she was 15, and that police threatened to arrest him unless he produced a certificate showing she was 20.
"I want justice. The situation can't stay like this," he said.
Amnesty International said Brazilian women "are the hidden victims of a crumbling detention system," and many cases of women abused under government custody go unreported or uninvestigated.
"We receive extensive reports of women in detention who suffer sexual abuse, torture, substandard health care and inhuman conditions," said Tim Cahill, Amnesty's researcher on Brazil.
Carepa said the government also was investigating reports that the girl was arrested purposely for the sexual gratification of the prisoners.
"This is an unfortunate practice that regrettably has been occurring for some time," she said. "But it would be good to make this public, so that all society will be mobilized and we can end these practices. ... We won't allow this to happen again."
The Brazilian Bar Association voiced skepticism that officials would take effective action.
"What has happened in the state of Para's prison system shows that for authorities the concept of human dignity is only useful as a rhetorical instrument, not something to be taken seriously," Britto said.
If police did not have the required separate cells, the government "must recognize its inefficiency and ... release those citizens it cannot hold," he said.