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Brazil: Panel Details ‘Dirty War’ Atrocities

Truth Commission Identifies Abusers, Calls for Prosecutions

(São Paulo) – The release of the final report by Brazil’s National Truth Commission is a major step toward addressing the atrocities committed during the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), Human Rights Watch said today.

The report identifies 377 individuals, close to 200 of them still alive, as responsible for human rights violations during that period, which it considers constitute crimes against humanity, including torture, killings, and enforced disappearances. The commission found that the violations constituted “widespread and systematic actions” and were carried out as part of a “government policy” planned and ordered by officials at the highest level.

“The commission has made a major contribution by providing an authoritative and long-overdue account of the horrible crimes that took place during the dictatorship,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Just as important, it has pointed the way to the next crucial step that Brazil needs to take: making sure that those who committed atrocities are finally brought to justice.” 

The Truth Commission increased the count of people dead or disappeared during the “Dirty War” years to 434, whereas the official number previously stood at 362. The new figure includes 191 people killed, 210 disappeared, and 33 who were disappeared but whose bodies were later recovered. The commission only included cases it could corroborate, and concluded that the actual number of victims would have been higher if it had access to Armed Forces documents that the Defense Ministry says have been destroyed.

The report contains harrowing accounts of the suffering of hundreds of Brazilians detained and tortured by members of the Armed Forces and police, many of whom were never seen again.

One was Joaquim Alencar de Seixas, a leader of an armed group, the Tiradentes Revolutionary Movement, who was detained along with his wife and three of his children. Seixas and his 16-year-old son were tortured side by side in a military installation in São Paulo, where officers applied electric shocks to their genitals and other organs, and subjected them to the infamous pau de arara, a torture technique that causes severe pain in which the victim is suspended from a horizontal pole. The report says that Seixas must have died during one of the torture sessions. The authorities said at the time that he was killed when he tried to escape.

Official reports routinely covered up the killings, instead attributing the deaths to suicides, accidents, or casualties in exchanges of gunfire, the commission said.

The document also reports cases of rape; torturing of pregnant women, some of whom had miscarriages as a result; the use of insects, like cockroaches, introduced in the victim’s bodies; and psychological torture, such as threats against family members.

The dictatorship targeted not only members of armed groups, but also critics, academics, clergy, trade unionists, rural workers, military officers who advocated a return to democracy, and members of minority and vulnerable groups.

The report also documents the suffering of indigenous people, many of whom were forcibly displaced from their land by the government to build infrastructure, mining, or agricultural projects. Entire communities were destroyed. The government also dismissed diplomats it accused of being homosexual from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the São Paulo police arrested hundreds of transgender people because of their sexual orientation.

The prosecution of those responsible for atrocities has been blocked by a judicial interpretation of a 1979 law that provided an amnesty for “political crimes.” The amnesty law resulted in the release of hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the return of exiles, according to the report. Brazilian courts subsequently interpreted the amnesty law to shield government agents from prosecution for human rights crimes during the dictatorship.

In November 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in Gomes-Lund et al. (Guerrilha do Araguaia) v. Brazil that the amnesty law should not prevent the investigation and prosecution of serious human rights violations committed during military rule. The court instructed Brazil to open criminal investigations into the enforced disappearance of 62 people and to prosecute those responsible for their disappearance. In October 2014, the Inter-American Court found that Brazil had not abided by its 2010 ruling.

A breakthrough occurred on September 10, 2014, when a federal tribunal in Rio de Janeiro allowed the prosecution of five retired members of the Armed Forces for the homicide of Rubens Paiva, a former member of Congress who died at a military installation in Rio de Janeiro in 1971. The prosecutor’s office contended that the amnesty law did not apply to crimes against humanity or to crimes that are continuing, such as enforced disappearances. It was the first time an appeals court had cleared the path for the prosecution of a case from the military era.

On December 1, 2014, a federal tribunal in São Paulo allowed the prosecution of retired Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra and of Alcides Singillo, a former police officer, for their alleged involvement in the enforced disappearance of Hirohaki Torigoe, 27, whom the Truth Commission reported was tortured and killed in a military installation in São Paulo in 1972. A lower court in São Paulo found in January 2014 that the statute of limitations had expired, but the appeals court overturned this ruling on the grounds that the crime is continuing if the victim’s whereabouts remains unknown.

The Truth Commission urged the Armed Forces to admit its institutional responsibility for the participation of its members in abuses during the dictatorship and the use of its facilities to carry them out. It also called for criminal prosecution of those responsible for serious human rights violations.

In addition, the commission proposed creating a body to monitor the adoption of its recommendations for addressing past abuses, and to examine and promote measures to end the continued use by security forces of torture and other abusive practices documented in the report.

The Truth Commission issued a resolution three months after its creation in May 2012 that defined its objective as investigating serious human rights violations committed by “state agents” but not to examine crimes committed by non-state actors.

“This landmark report is the result of two years and seven months of work, but should not be considered the end of the process,” Canineu said. “Prosecutors should use the facts that the Truth Commission uncovered to redouble their efforts to prosecute these crimes.”

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