(Washington, DC) – The decision by federal prosecutors to bring charges against a retired military officer for grave abuses committed in the 1970’s is a landmark step for accountability in Brazil, Human Rights Watch said today.
Federal prosecutors announced on March 13, 2012, that they are charging Col. Sebastião Curió Rodrigues de Moura with “aggravated kidnapping” for his alleged role in five enforced disappearances in Pará state in 1974. The charges will be formally submitted this week to a federal judge, who will determine whether the case will go to trial.
The case is the first in which criminal charges are brought against a Brazilian official for the human rights crimes committed during the country’s military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985. More than 475 people were forcibly disappeared during that era, and thousands more were illegally detained or tortured.
“This is tremendous news for the families who lost loved ones in the brutal repression that followed the 1964 military coup,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “A quarter century after Brazil’s transition to democracy, they are still awaiting justice.”
The five people who allegedly disappeared were members of a small guerrilla organization detained during military operations in 1974. According to federal prosecutors, witnesses last saw them in military custody. Their fate remains unknown.
A 1979 amnesty law had effectively barred criminal prosecutions for dictatorship-era abuses. In November 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in Gomes-Lund et al. (Guerrilha do Araguaia) v. Brazil that this amnesty law must not prevent the investigation and prosecution of serious human rights violations committed during militaryrule.
Brazil’s congress subsequently approved a law creating a truth commission to examine serious human rights violations committed during the military era. There has been little progress, however, in holding those responsible for abuses to account.
Under international humanitarian law, enforced disappearances are absolutely prohibited and can never be justified, whether as part of an armed conflict or any law enforcement operation. They may also constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity. As a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, ratified by Brazil in November 2010, Brazil has specific obligations to ensure that, whenever an offense occurs, there is effective investigation and prosecution, and a proper remedy for the victim. When it ratified the treaty, Brazil did not include any reservations regarding the application of the Convention to outstanding, continuous cases of disappearances.
Moreover, while international law forbids the retroactive application of the criminal law, this prohibition is not intended to prevent the punishment of acts that were recognized as criminal under international law at the time that they were committed, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Brazil ratified in 1992, notes specifically that “[n]othing in this article shall prejudice the trial and punishment of any person for any act or omission which, at the time when committed, was criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations.”
“Since political leaders have failed to repeal the amnesty law, it is up to prosecutors and courts to ensure that Brazil fulfills its international obligation to bring to justice those who are responsible for past atrocities,” Vivanco said.