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First Conviction for Dictatorship Crimes in Brazil

Justice Should not Take 50 Years

Demonstrators show photos of people killed during Brazil's dictatorship outside a police station that used to be a torture center used by the dictatorship in Sao Paulo, Brazil on August 5th, 2019. © 2019 Andre Penner/AP Photo

A Brazilian court has issued the first conviction of a state agent for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship of 1964 to 1985. Yesterday a judge in São Paulo sentenced retired police officer Carlos Alberto Augusto to 2 years and 11 months in prison for the kidnapping of Edgar de Aquino Duarte.

Duarte was among at least 434 people who were killed or forcibly disappeared during Brazil’s dictatorship, according to the National Truth Commission. Thousands more were illegally detained or tortured, yet those responsible were shielded by a 1979 amnesty law. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2010, although the Inter-American Court of Human Rights later found that it violates Brazil’s obligations under international law.

Judge Silvio César Arouck Gemaque ruled that kidnapping is an ongoing crime that is not subject to the amnesty law and should be punished. Prosecutor Andrey Mendonça told Human Rights Watch that the conviction was “historic.”

Duarte, a naval officer, opposed the 1964 military coup and was expelled from the navy. He ended his political activities and was working as a financial broker when an informant mentioned his name to the authorities. On June 13, 1971, he was arrested without a court order and held incommunicado. He was last seen in 1973. His body was never recovered.

Federal prosecutors charged three men with his kidnapping; two have since died, including former army colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, who commanded a torture center where Duarte was also held, according to survivors who testified in this case. President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who praises the dictatorship, has called Ustra “a Brazilian hero.”

The conviction is a testament to the persistence of federal prosecutors, who have filed charges in more than 50 cases of dictatorship crimes. International law requires that states provide effective remedies for violations of human rights, including thoroughly investigating, prosecuting, and proportionately punishing those responsible. A sentence of less than three years in prison for such a horrific crime hardly seems like justice. But it is an important step, and it should be followed by many more to end impunity for the systematic violation of human rights during Brazil’s dictatorship.

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