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Saturday, February 24, 2024
ASUNCIÓN, Jul 24 2007 (IPS) - Paraguay’s Truth and Justice Commission has launched a campaign to collect testimonies from 2,000 victims and relatives of people who disappeared during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled this country with an iron fist for 35 years.
The campaign is called “2,000 Testimonies for History,” and is intended to supply “clear and solid evidence” for the Commission’s final report, due in August 2008.
This report will then become the official position of the Paraguayan government, which in 1996 acknowledged the existence of a dictatorship from 1954 to 1989.
The head of the Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ), Juan Manuel Benitez Florentin, said that 1,350 testimonies have already been recorded.
There are no official figures in Paraguay for the number of people who were forcibly disappeared during the dictatorship. The CVJ is investigating about 400 cases, while the non-governmental Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared estimates the number of people killed at between 3,000 and 4,000.
“By means of this campaign we want to effect reparations that will dignify the struggle of all Paraguayans. This year it is vital that we collect more testimonies, in order to have sufficiently valid proof to get at the truth,” Benitez Florentin told IPS.
The campaign, launched on Jul. 10, has the support of the Swiss government and of media channels in this country, which are broadcasting messages inviting citizens to come forward and testify.
A television publicity spot focused on the story of Emilio Barreto, an actor who spent 13 years in prison.
Barreto speaks plainly about the physical and psychological torture to which he was subjected: he was forced, for instance, to dig his own grave. The actor says that it is “a patriotic duty” to cooperate with the campaign, no matter how difficult it might be for the victims or the fear they may feel about reopening old wounds.
The testimonies collected include those of human rights activists, leaders of opposition political parties and of campesino (small farmers) movements, and dissidents among the military.
There are also the stories of people who were persecuted and tortured simply for expressing sympathy with the ideas of the opposition.
One drama affecting an entire community is that of Costa Rosado in the department of Caaguazú, 150 kilometres from the Paraguayan capital.
In the 1960s the community belonged to the Christian Agrarian League, organised by progressive sectors of the Catholic Church that established productive community units.
At dawn on Mar. 12, 1980, Costa Rosado was invaded by about 400 heavily-armed soldiers with helicopter support, who completely surrounded the village. They laid siege to the houses and arrested several people without a warrant, accusing them of being “communists and guerrillas.”
The village was under military occupation for nearly three months. During that time, seven children died from lack of medical care in a measles outbreak. There were reports of under-age children being raped and of illegal extortion.
Victoriano Centurión, a leader of the community who is now 80 years old, was one of those arrested. He was brutally tortured on repeated occasions.
“What they did most was to bind us hand and foot and kick us in the ribs and in the mouth. They aimed machineguns at us and asked if you were a communist, if you were pro-Russian and if you answered back they beat you,” Centurión told the CVJ.
The CVJ’s archives contain records of hundreds of cases of torture, illegal detention, disappearances and murders.
“In the first and most brutal phase of the dictatorship, up to the 1960s, the average length of stay in prison was 800 days. Later, in the final stage, in the 1980s, the average was 10 days. People went in and out of prison,” sociologist José Carlos Rodríguez, who is collecting testimonies for the campaign, told IPS.
Rodríguez said that reliving their experiences is a painful and difficult process for victims, because of the physical and psychological consequences of their mistreatment. Many have damage to internal organs or to the spine because of the beatings. Some suffer from permanent headaches and insomnia.
The dictatorship left deep scars in society, too. “There are psychological consequences, the destruction of the social fabric. This society still doesn’t know how to govern itself, and that’s why after nearly 20 years of democratic transition, people still don’t know how to use their vote, for example,” Rodríguez said.
The CVJ has nine members, and its mission is to investigate human rights violations by both the Stroessner regime and by state agencies up to Oct. 6, 2003, the date the commission was created by law.
The CVJ presented a preliminary report in 2006 containing evidence on several cases of disappearances and extrajudicial killings. It identifies those allegedly responsible for illegal detentions and presents information about the forced exile of human rights activists and members of the opposition during the harshest phase of the dictatorship.
The report held Stroessner reponsible for the treatment of victims of Operation Condor, a strategy under which several military dictatorships in South America in the 1970s and 1980s shared information about members of the opposition in exile and organised kidnapping and murder operations in different countries’ territories.
Some of the details of these procedures came to light when documents known as the “Archives of Terror” were discovered in 1992 at a police station in the outskirts of Asunción. They include secret documents of Stroessner’s security organisations and their communications with security agencies in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
The CVJ preliminary report adds that “in the Investigations and Technical Departments (police sections where detainees were tortured) selective murders of some regime opponents were carried out, particularly members of the Communist Party.”
The final report next year should propose reparations for the victims, which should be of a moral nature as well as monetary.
“It should propose legislative, educational and administrative actions that permit the state to assume its responsibilities in order to build a harmonious common future,” concluded Fernández Estigarribia.
Stroessner was deposed in 1989 and went into exile in Brazil, where he died on Aug. 16, 2006 at the age of 93.
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