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No Justice for Horrors of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship 50 Years On

President-Elect Jair Bolsonaro Defends Military Regime

Tanks occupy the Avenida Presidente Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 4, 1968. © 1968 Correio da Manhã

Fifty years ago today, Brazil´s military regime unleashed all-out repression with the publication of Institutional Act 5. Brazil’s president, army general Artur da Costa e Silva, immediately invoked the Act to close Congress and state legislatures, arrest opposition politicians, and revoke their political rights. He established widespread censorship and suspended habeas corpus for offenses that criminalized political activity, crimes against national security, and other crimes.

This kicked off the bloodiest period of the dictatorship (1964-1985) and spurred a stronger response by leftist groups that were engaged in ongoing armed resistance.

In 2014, a National Truth Commission identified 377 state agents, close to 200 of them still alive, as responsible for hundreds of cases of torture, killings, and enforced disappearances.

Last week, forensic experts identified the remains of trade unionist Aluísio Palhano Pedreira Ferreira, whom authorities kidnapped and disappeared in 1971, the Commission concluded. He is one of only five people identified from the more than 1,000 bags of human remains unearthed from a clandestine grave almost 30 years ago.

The anniversary of Institutional Act 5 has gained new significance this year, after Brazilians elected former army captain Jair Bolsonaro as president. As congressman, Bolsonaro opposed the creation of the Truth Commission. Paraphrasing the motto inscribed on Brazil’s flag, Bolsonaro has defined the bloody military period as “20 years of order and progress.” He also calls the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who directed one of the dictatorship’s torture centers, a “hero.”

Prosecutors charged Ustra and a civil police officer with kidnapping Palhano, but the courts rejected the case, citing an amnesty law passed by the military regime that has so far shielded all torturers from justice. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled twice that the amnesty law should not prevent the prosecution of grave human rights violations.

Bolsonaro’s electoral victory is emblematic of Brazilians’ widespread disillusionment with democracy. Only 34 percent of Brazilians said in a poll published in November that they preferred democracy to any other form of government, one of the lowest percentages in the Americas.  

The anniversary of Institutional Act 5 should remind Brazilians of the horrors of the authoritarian path.

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