Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS: Brazil’s Turn for Truth and Justice?

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - Almost 25 years after the fall of the dictatorship in Brazil, relatives of the victims and human rights activists are still battling to discover the fate of those who were murdered or “disappeared,” gain access to official records and find out in detail what went on under the repressive regime.

Brazil is “way behind other South American countries,” like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where illegal acts of repression have been investigated, and dictators and torturers have been convicted in court, said Laura Petit da Silva, sister to three of the victims of forced disappearance.

She is calling for the creation of a Truth and Justice Commission to unearth crimes committed by the armed forces that remain under wraps.

The National Human Rights Conference approved the proposed Commission in December 2008, for inclusion in the Third National Human Rights Plan, which will be presented Monday, Dec. 21, but the latest draft of the plan uses the phrase “Truth and Reconciliation.”

“It’s a contradiction for the government to propose reconciliation, when it has done nothing to make information available, and has refused to declassify its archives,” said Elizabeth Silveira e Silva of the Torture Never Again Group in Rio de Janeiro, the sister of a student who was forcibly disappeared.

“It’s not possible to reconcile people without the recovery of the victims’ bodies, and without the truth,” said Beatriz Affonso, head of the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in Brazil. The reconciliation that is needed is between state and society, but Brazil has not yet officially admitted the crimes committed during the 1964-1985 dictatorship.

The Justice and Truth Commission was called for by five activists at a Wednesday press conference with foreign correspondents. “We need the backing of international pressure,” said Victoria Grabois, who lost her mother, father, brother and husband in the offensive against the Araguaia guerrillas, in the early 1970s.

Now the government is saying it will accept the Commission, on the condition that it aims for reconciliation, because it is facing the threat of a condemnation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for the atrocities committed in the Araguaia valley in the eastern Amazon region, including torture, execution of prisoners, and the secret burial of corpses, the activists said.

The Araguaia guerrillas, organised in the late 1960s by the then pro-Chinese Communist Party of Brazil, were hunted down mercilessly by the armed forces, leaving at least 76 guerrillas and local people dead between 1972 and 1976.

It was the darkest episode in the history of resistance against the military dictatorship, and went unacknowledged by the armed forces for many years. What happened there was gradually pieced together by survivors, witnesses, and a few military documents that came to light.

There were few survivors. Grabois escaped with her life because she was pregnant and left the region in 1972, but she was detained and tortured in army barracks in Brasilia. “I was kidnapped without due process of law; I saw photos of my comrades with their throats slit, and the perpetrators of the massacre still enjoy total impunity,” she said.

These “acts of barbarity” and others committed at other times and places, like the 1865-1870 War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay (in which up to 90 percent of Paraguayan men may have been killed), are the reasons why the military still refuse to declassify their documents more than 30 years after the Araguaia massacre, in Grabois’ view.

The Justice and Truth Commission’s task will be to shed light on the facts, give the victims due recognition and recommend policies to avoid future human rights abuses. Its mandate will be to investigate crimes committed on Brazilian soil or abroad, if Brazilian state agents were involved.

Commission members must not be chosen by the government, but by public mechanisms with broad participation by society, said Criméia de Almeida, whose partner “disappeared” in Araguaia. Nor is the interpretation that crimes during the dictatorship have been amnestied an acceptable one, she added.

“There is no such thing as self-amnesty,” she said, recalling that the political amnesty of 1979 was decreed by Gen. João Figueiredo, the last president under the military governments.

The amnesty law was so restrictive in its application to opponents of the regime that “only 17 political prisoners were released,” according to Affonso. In fact what really happened was that sentences handed down under the dictatorship’s National Security Law were reduced, so that many prisoners served out their sentence on parole, Almeida said.

It was “a political pact of silence,” and members of the military were never amnestied because “they were not even sent to trial,” she said.

Including “justice” alongside “truth” is important, the activists said, because torture is an unpardonable crime, and executions of “prisoners who were no longer a threat” merited the death penalty, which does not exist in Brazil.

It’s a matter of principle, a question of the right to life, which ought not to be subjected to popular referendums, as happened in Uruguay, Almeida said. She was referring to the vote held alongside the Oct. 25 presidential and parliamentary elections, which failed to annul the 1986 amnesty law for human rights violations under the 1973-1985 military regime.

The amnesty law empowers the executive branch in Uruguay to decide which cases of human rights abuses committed by the dictatorship should be referred to the justice system for prosecution. It was only in 2005, when the leftwing Broad Front came to power, that dictators and other high-profile human rights violators were imprisoned.

However, the Brazilian Truth Commission will not set itself up as an “ad hoc court” to try human rights offenders, but will provide the ordinary civilian courts with the results of its investigations so that justice can take its proper course, Affonso said.

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