A case involving a refugee arrested in one of Brazil’s largest police operations has mobilized human rights organizations, researchers and parliamentarians, who claim she is innocent and has been unfairly detained for six months.
Born in Togo, Africa, street vendor Falilatou Estelle Sarouna, 43, was arrested on December 15 as part of Operation Anteros, which exposed a transnational internet scam that claimed at least 437 victims in 24 Brazilian states, with an estimated loss of 24 million reais.
According to the civilian police, the criminals, mostly Nigerians, used fake profiles on social media or dating sites to interact with the victims virtually. Then they extort them, threatening to release intimate photos – what the police call emotional embezzlement.
The operation mobilized 820 police officers in seven states, denounced 210 people and arrested 122. One of them was Falilatou, accused of being one of the organization’s “account holders”, that is, that is, to have borrowed his bank account to process illicit sums. As evidence, the public prosecutor presented police reports of the victims of the coup d’état in which the Togolese woman appeared as the holder of four accounts and a form to open one of these accounts.
But the form is signed in cursive, and Fali (as his friends call him) is illiterate, according to family members and lawyers. In addition, the handwriting is very different from the signature that appears on her ID (which is basically a dash), as well as on her rental agreement and other documents signed by her and notarized.
Being illiterate, Fali needed help with banking and bureaucratic issues, says her only relative in Brazil, a Catholic priest who lives in Salvador. According to the Togolese defense, she was the victim of a scam and her data was used by criminals to open the account in her name, without her knowledge.
“She always needed help with papers, withdrawals from the bank, she even said the amount and someone else was typing because she didn’t even know which keys to press,” says Mossi Anoumou, 38 years old, his brother. “We believe that in one of these situations, someone took advantage of their vulnerability and used these documents to open the accounts.”
According to the lawyers, two other elements would signal her innocence: the first is that she did not lead a life compatible with someone who earns money through fraudulent activities. According to witnesses, Fali woke up at dawn to buy clothes to resell and worked all day on a sidewalk in Brás.
“More than 1 million reais have been transferred to bank accounts in his name. If she had had an advantage with this, why would she continue to work as a street vendor from sunrise to sunset and in the rain, living in a kitchenette with a rent of R $ 700? Asks Vitor Bastos, one of the lawyers representing Falilatou pro bono.
The second element is that she presented herself to the police on the day of the operation. When he returned home and saw that the door had been smashed, he went to a police station to open a police report, believing it had been robbed. Once there, he discovered that the police had entered his house to execute the arrest warrant. And was detained there.
“What criminal would spontaneously show up at a police station? », Says Bastos. According to him, while there is evidence that other defendants who voluntarily lent their accounts, in exchange for money, were relatives of the organization’s criminals, there is nothing in the complaint that binds Falilatou. to the gang.
“What is frightening about this case is that anyone whose data has been disclosed and used by criminals to open a bank account could be placed in preventive detention for months, without the possibility of explaining themselves”, explains Bastos. “In practice, we know that Fali, being a black woman and a migrant, is more likely to be arrested.”
Bastos tried several remedies to keep Falilatou at large awaiting trial, but they were all rejected.
For him, as this is a trial of nearly 20,000 pages and hundreds of defendants, the judge did not analyze each situation individually, awarding habeas corpus to groups on the basis of generic criteria – for example, mothers of children under 12.
It was not until May, five months after the preventive arrests, that the process was dismantled. “The main problem is the lack of individualization. The Falilatou case is entangled in a trial with 210 defendants, who are accused arbitrarily and without proof of crimes such as extortion, money laundering and embezzlement ”, explains Karina Quintanilha, researcher at Unicamp and member of the Fronteiras Cruzadas Forum. “The late dismemberment of the process without her having the right to respond freely is violence.”
For her, the way in which the Togolese case was treated “violates the principle of the presumption of innocence and makes the right of defense impracticable”. “Especially since the process takes place in Martinópolis, a small town that does not even have a public defender’s office.”
With the absence of a public defender’s office in the city and the delay in appointing lawyers for the defendants, many have been left defenseless for months. For Quintanilha and other activists, there may be more immigrant women in the same situation as Falilatou.
Of the 210 people charged, 140 are women, who come from countries such as Angola, South Africa, Haiti, Thailand and Venezuela. According to Cátia Kim, a lawyer and researcher at the ITTC (Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania), the leaders of the organization are men and most of the women are accused of being account holders.
“An absurd point is that criminal typifications have been generalized. Everyone, regardless of their role in the organization, was accused of the same crimes: extortion, embezzlement and money laundering, among others. If, in the complaint, the prosecution divided each according to their role in the organization, in theory there should be an adequate classification for each, ”he said.
Falilatou’s case was the subject of a meeting on May 31 at the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights and Citizenship of São Paulo City Hall, chaired by City Councilor Eduardo Suplicy (PT ), which was attended by representatives of the USP, the Municipal Council for Immigrants and the State Police Ombudsman.
During the meeting, the police mediator, Elizeu Soares Lopes, said that in Falilatou’s case there is “a lot of arbitrariness” and that he will work “to reverse this injustice”.
After the meeting, Suplicy sent a letter to Judge Alessandro Correia Leite, responsible for the case. According to the municipal councilor, all the information gathered by his team suggests that Falilatou was unjustly arrested.
A campaign supported by NGOs, academic groups and MPs such as Natália Bonavides, Sâmia Bomfim and Érica Malunguinho tries to give visibility to the case and to raise funds for Fali’s son in Togo to return to the country. school – he had to leave school because he no longer receives the resources from the mother.
The judge decided to wait until all the defendants present their defenses before starting individualized analyzes. Meanwhile, Fali awaits a decision on another appeal, this time by the STJ (Superior Court of Justice). “Every day is one more day that Fali is stuck. The time is against us, ”says Vítor Bastos.
When questioned by Folha, the civilian police said that during the investigation, they had gathered “a solid body of evidence, with images from surveillance cameras, testimonies of victims and witnesses, telephone and banking information of involved persons”.
“There is no indication, so far, that the jailed account holders were unaware of the crimes committed, some of which confessed to having participated in the action, as well as the respective recruiters,” said the note, adding that all prisoners were questioned in Portuguese and in his mother tongue. According to Falilatou’s defense, she has neither confessed nor been formally questioned.
The prosecution asserts that all those involved will have the opportunity to defend themselves during the process, that all requests for revocation of pre-trial detention are analyzed “casuistically” and that the accused have the right to appeal to the court. superior.
The Court of Justice, for its part, specified that magistrates “have functional independence to decide on the basis of the documents in the file and their free conviction” and that the judge will only analyze the evidence in the event of a trial. “In the event of disagreement with the decision, it is up to the parties to exercise the remedies provided for by the legislation in force.
Coming from a poor family, Falilatou has worked since childhood and therefore could not study. From the Minas ethnic group, she spoke the local dialect and a little French. She arrived in Brazil in 2014 as a refugee and supported her son and part of his family in Togo with what she received as a street vendor.
After seven years, his brother was going to bring his son to his mother in Brazil last March, but gave up after his arrest. While in custody, Fali goes into debt on his rent and risks becoming infected with Covid-19, his supporters say. “She has serious comorbidities and is at risk of dying,” explains Karina Quintanilha.
For the lawyer, the Togolese is a victim of racism and xenophobia. “For some social groups, it is as if the presumption of innocence does not exist. To imagine a banker or a politician arrested for extortion and money laundering without irrefutable evidence and without individualized procedure for six months is unimaginable.