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Brazilians Demand Justice for Horrors That Took Place During Military Dictatorship

As Brazil’s National Truth Commission wraps up its work and disbands, calls are growing for the punishment of perpetrators of torture, murder, and forced disappearances.

by Claire Rigby
Dec 12 2014, 5:45pm

Photo via AP/Eraldo Peres

"I would like to be able to erase the moment my father was murdered from my memory," says Ângela Telma de Oliveira Lucena. "But I can't, and I won't. It's the only memory I have of him."

Ângela was three years old when she saw her father, Antônio Raymundo Lucena, a dissident and member of the armed resistance to Brazil's military dictatorship, executed with a shot to the head during a raid on their home in 1970. Her story, along with those of 39 others who were children at the time of the dictatorship, appeared in November in a volume, Infância roubada (Stolen Childhood), published by the National Truth Commission's São Paulo office.

The work of the commission, initiated in May 2012, came to a close at a ceremony held in Brasília on Wednesday when it presented its final account of atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the dictatorship between 1964 and 1985 to President Dilma Rousseff, who was herself imprisoned and tortured from 1970 to 1972.

'The ongoing impunity of torturers is intrinsically linked to police violence and to Brazil's unfinished process of democratization.'

The result of 80 public hearings held in 15 states, the commission's report was also informed by the testimony of 1,120 witnesses, including military personnel, and by the analysis of thousands of documents.

Before the investigation began, the violence of this period had not been subjected to the same level of detailed scrutiny as has that of similar regimes in Argentina and Chile. Two years and seven months later, a great many details have emerged of the widespread, systematic brutality practiced by the regime. Despite a legal loophole that has allowed the perpetrators of torture and murder to remain free to this day, hopes are growing that the official recognition of their crimes might be a starting point that will lead, eventually, to at least some prosecutions.

"One of the most important things about the report is that we now have very detailed, factual accounts from the perspectives of the victims of these grave abuses," Maria Laura Canineu, director of Human Rights Watch in Brazil, told VICE News.

The commission determined that torture was used "systematically" as a method of collecting information during the dictatorship to the extent that it became "the essence of the military regime's system of repression." It named 377 people as having been responsible for human rights abuses, both at institutional and organizational levels as well as directly, in a list that includes police chiefs, diplomats, medical and forensics professionals, and the five presidents who presided over the junta's long rule.

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While acknowledging that the actual number is considerably higher, the commission also identified 434 people who were either killed or disappeared as a result of the regime's repressive actions. The investigation was limited in scope by the failure of the armed forces to provide important records. Although nominally cooperative with the commission, the armed forces have claimed that thousands of relevant documents have been destroyed.

The commission's coordinator, Pedro Dallari, was unconvinced.

"In the two years and seven months of our work, no one has come forward to tell us, even privately, that they took part in the destruction [of these documents], or saw it happening," he remarked at a press conference on Wednesday.

Compounding the difficulty of holding perpetrators of violations to account is a 1979 amnesty law that was intended to protect dissidents from prosecution for "political" and related crimes. Though passage of the law allowed thousands of the dictatorship's opponents to be released from prison or to return from exile abroad, it has been interpreted to protect members of the military dictatorship responsible for torture, murder, and other crimes. Widely regarded by former dissidents and activists as perverse, such interpretations were ruled legal in a 2010 Federal Supreme Court decision.

The commission disagrees. Based on its findings, it classifies the abuses perpetrated by the regime as crimes against humanity "given their scale and systematic nature," and therefore ineligible for amnesty under international law.

'There's something far more important missing here, and it's justice. We have a list of names of torturers, murderers, and rapists, many of them still alive, and yet as a result of the amnesty that they granted to themselves, nothing can be done?'

With a mandate to uncover the truth, however, rather than to prosecute wrongdoing, the investigation's focus has been more on a process of national reconciliation proposed by Rousseff than on seeking justice and punishment.

"Truth does not signify revenge," said a visibly moved Rousseff, speaking at the ceremony on Wednesday. "It is not a motive for hatred or for the settling of scores."

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Human Right Watch's Maria Laura Canineu doesn't think that reconciliation is possible under the circumstances, however.

"For reconciliation to occur according to the Truth Commission," she said, "the armed forces need to recognise that they committed abuses, and that the responsibility for those abuses runs through the entire chain of command. I don't know if they will ever recognize that."

According to the journalist and filmmaker Paula Sacchetta, co-director of the documentary Verdade 12.528, which brings together testimonies by victims of the regime and their families, reconciliation is not only impossible, but also undesirable.

"The word itself implies a forgiveness of torture, and that's impossible," she told VICE News. "There's something far more important missing here, and it's justice. We have a list of names of torturers, murderers, and rapists, many of them still alive, and yet as a result of the amnesty that they granted to themselves, nothing can be done?"

Many political and human rights groups point to the era's unpunished crimes as contributing to the high levels of impunity and violence that prevail in Brazil today, including hundreds of deaths annually at the hands of the military police. A manifesto published on Wednesday by 30 left-wing political movements called for the punishment of those responsible for crimes of torture.

"The ongoing impunity of torturers is intrinsically linked to police violence and to Brazil's unfinished process of democratization," it said.

A lack of remorse has been characteristic of both the armed forces and elements of Brazil's right wing. At anti-government demonstrations held in São Paulo in recent weeks, a small minority of demonstrators called for military intervention and a return to the dictatorship. At Wednesday's ceremony, a lawyer named Joel Câmara hijacked the microphone to pay homage, he said, to "the armed forces, which won the war on terror."

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Many of the commission report's 29 recommendations, including a call for the demilitarization of Brazil's police force, are designed to ensure that human rights abuses of this nature don't persist. The very concept of crimes that "continue to occur" is the key to one ray of hope in the quest to hold members of the armed forces to account for their actions. In two separate decisions this year, courts in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro ruled that military personnel can still be tried in cases of forced disappearances during the dictatorship, since that crime is still being perpetrated today.

Caninue believes that the opportunity exists for Brazil's Public Prosecutor's Office to bring cases against many perpetrators of disappearances.

"Now that the systematic, generalized nature of the regime's abuses has been proven, prosecutors have many more arguments for doing so," she said.

Though the commission will be dissolved on December 16, one of its parting recommendations is the establishment of a permanent body to continue its work, particularly the investigation of disappearances. Rousseff has said that the government will study the report in preparation for the next steps. Her tone has been overwhelmingly conciliatory so far, but the campaign for justice and accountability for the atrocities committed by the military government appears likely to continue with or without her support.

Follow Claire Rigby on Twitter: @claire_rigby

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