A case involving a refugee arrested in one of the largest police operations in Brazil 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 Dec. 15 amid Operation Anteros, which unraveled a transnational internet scam that left at least 437 victims in 24 Brazilian states, with estimated loss of R$ 24 million.
According to the Civil Police, the criminals, most of them Nigerians, used fake profiles on social networks or dating sites to virtually interact with victims. Then they extort them, threatening to divulge intimate photos — that’s 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, of borrowing her bank account to handle illicit amounts. As evidence, the Public Ministry presented police reports of victims of the coup 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 she is called by friends) is illiterate, according to family members and lawyers. In addition, the handwriting is very different from the signature that appears on her identity document (which is basically a dash), as well as on her lease agreement and other documents signed by her and notarized.
Being illiterate, Fali needed help with banking operations 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 had her data used by criminals to open the account in her name, without her knowledge.
“She always needed help with documentation, withdrawals from the bank, she even said the amount and someone else typed because she didn’t even know which keys to press,” says Mossi Anoumou, 38, her brother. “We think that in one of these situations someone took advantage of her 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 compatible life with someone who makes money from 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 R$1 million were transferred to bank accounts in her name. If she had had some advantage with that, why would she continue working as a street vendor from sunup to sundown and in 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 herself presented herself to the police on the day of the operation. When he got home and saw that the door had been broken down, he went to a police station to open a police report, thinking it had been stolen. Once there, he discovered that the police had entered his house to fulfill the arrest warrant. And was detained there.
“Which criminal would spontaneously report to 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 close to criminals of the organization, there is nothing in the complaint that links Falilatou to the gang.
“What is frightening in this case is that anyone who had their data leaked and used by criminals to open a bank account could be placed in preventive detention for months, without the possibility of explaining themselves,” says Bastos. “In practice, we know that Fali, being a black woman and a migrant, is more vulnerable to being arrested.”
Bastos tried several appeals to make Falilatou await the trial in freedom, but they were all denied.
For him, as it is a process of nearly 20,000 pages and hundreds of defendants, the judge did not analyze each situation individually, granting habeas corpus to groups based on generic criteria — for example, mothers of children under 12 .
It was only in May, five months after the preventive arrests, that the process was disbanded. “The main problem is the lack of individualization. Falilatou’s case is in the tangle of a process with 210 defendants, who are accused arbitrarily and without proof of crimes such as extortion, money laundering and embezzlement”, says Karina Quintanilha, a researcher at Unicamp and a member of the Fronteiras Cruzadas Forum . “The belated dismemberment of the process without her having the right to respond in freedom is violence.”
For her, the way in which the case of Togolese has been treated “violates the principle of presumption of innocence and is making the right of defense unfeasible”. “Even more considering that the process is taking place in Martinópolis, a small city that doesn’t even have a Public Defender’s Office.”
With the lack of a Public Defender’s Office in the city and the delay in appointing lawyers for the defendants, many were left without defense for months. For Quintanilha and other activists, there may be more immigrant women in the same situation as Falilatou.
Of the 210 people accused, 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 organization’s leaders are men, and most women are accused of being account holders.
“An absurd point is that criminal typifications were generalized. Everyone, regardless of role in the organization, was accused of the same crimes: extortion, embezzlement and money laundering, among others. If, in the complaint, the Public Ministry divided each one according to their role in the organization, in theory there should be an adequate classification for each one”, he says.
The case of Falilatou was the subject of a meeting, on May 31, at the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights and Citizenship of the São Paulo City Council, chaired by Councilor Eduardo Suplicy (PT), which was attended by representatives of USP, of the City Council of Immigrants and the Ombudsman of the State Police.
At the meeting, the police ombudsman, Elizeu Soares Lopes, said that in the case of Falilatou there is “many arbitrariness” and that he would work “to reverse this injustice”.
After the meeting, Suplicy sent a letter to Judge Alessandro Correia Leite, responsible for the case. According to the councilor, all the information gathered by his team gives room for thinking that Falilatou was unjustly arrested.
A campaign supported by NGOs, academic groups and deputies such as Natália Bonavides, Sâmia Bomfim and Érica Malunguinho tries to give visibility to the case and raise money for Fali’s son in Togo to go back to school — he had to leave school because he no longer receives mother’s resources.
The judge decided to wait for all defendants to present their defenses before starting individualized analyses. Meanwhile, Fali is awaiting a decision on another appeal, this time by the STJ (Superior Court of Justice). “Each day is one more day that Fali is stuck. The clock is against us”, says Vítor Bastos.
Questioned by leaf, the Civil Police said that in the investigation it gathered “a robust set of evidence, with images from surveillance cameras, testimonies of victims and witnesses, telephone and bank information from those involved”.
“There is no indication, so far, that the imprisoned account holders were not aware of the crimes committed, including part of them confessed to participating in the action, as well as the respective recruiters”, states the note, adding that all prisoners were interrogated in Portuguese and in its native language. According to Falilatou’s defense, she neither confessed nor was formally questioned.
The Public Ministry says that everyone involved will have the opportunity to defend themselves in the course of the process, that all requests for the revocation of preventive detention are being analyzed “casuistically” and that the accused have the right to appeal to the higher court.
The Court of Justice, on the other hand, stated that the magistrates “have functional independence to decide according to the documents in the case file and their free conviction” and that the judge will only analyze the evidence when there is a trial. “When there is disagreement with the decision, it is up to the parties to file the remedies provided for in the current legislation.”
From a poor family, Falilatou worked since he was a child and was therefore unable to study. Of 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 the family in Togo with what she received as a street vendor.
After seven years, her brother was going to bring her son to his mother in Brazil last March, but gave up after she was arrested. While in detention, Fali builds up debt on her rent and risks infecting herself with Covid-19, supporters say. “She has serious comorbidities and is at risk of death,” says Karina Quintanilha.
For the lawyer, the Togolese is being 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 compelling evidence and without an individualized process for six months is unimaginable.”