DEC. 10, 2014

Brazil Releases Report on Torture and Other Rights Abuses


RIO DE JANEIRO -- Agents of Brazil's military dictatorship crucified some torture victims, beating the palms of their hands with a stick as they hung on the walls of interrogation centers. Other victims had insects like cockroaches introduced into their bodies. Interrogators submitted prisoners, including Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla who is now Brazil's president, to electric shocks. [1]

In a sweeping report, a truth commission on Wednesday published a long list of torture methods [2] used during military rule in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, identified 377 individuals as responsible for rights violations and called for their criminal prosecutions in a major challenge to a 1979 amnesty law shielding those responsible for such crimes.

The report was released a day after the United States Senate Intelligence Committee issued its report on the Central Intelligence Agency's torture program during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The truth commission's report is expected to bolster challenges to a military establishment that ranks among Latin America's most recalcitrant in accepting responsibility for human rights abuses. Countries such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have been far more assertive [3] in jailing [4] dictatorship-era agents and military leaders [5] for their crimes.

"A decade ago, a report like this would have been unthinkable in Brazil," said Juana Kweitel, a director of Conectas, a prominent Brazilian human rights organization. "Getting to this point is a historic development in the consolidation of Brazilian democracy."

Still, big challenges persist in pursuing prosecutions over old crimes. Nearly three decades after the end of Brazil's dictatorship, many of the 377 people identified as having carried out the abuses are dead.

Meanwhile, civilian leaders including Ms. Rousseff and two former presidents, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, all of whom were treated harshly by the military dictatorship, have refrained from confronting the armed forces over abuses from the era. They have opted for a less confrontational approach emphasizing the gradual strengthening of Brazil's democracy.

But the commission's report may shift momentum toward greater accountability, even as the era has receded further into the past with the rise of leaders like Mr. da Silva, who was jailed by the dictatorship, and Mr. Cardoso, who was forced into exile. Ms. Rousseff, 66, who underwent torture during three years in prison in the 1970s, has begun speaking more openly about the period.

She cried during a speech on Wednesday in Brasília during the release of the report, referring to the country's need for "reconciliation" and saying, "We hope this report prevents ghosts from a painful and sorrowful past from seeking refuge in the shadows of silence and omission."

Expectations were relatively low when the commission began its work in 2011. But while it broadened its scope to examine rights abuses from 1946 to 1988, the commission kept its focus on the military dictatorship, officially increasing the count of the dead or disappeared people during the 21-year stretch of authoritarian rule to 434 from 362.

Military figures in Brazil remained defiant [6] as the commission investigated a long list of abuses, including the displacement of indigenous people for infrastructure projects in the Amazon, torture, rape and forced disappearances. Some argued that Brazilian society was not sufficiently grateful for their contributions.

"Our team prevented communism from being implemented," Carlos Alberto Augusto, a former investigator with the Department of Political and Social Order, a dictatorship-era police intelligence agency, told the commission in 2013. "Cuba doesn't have the freedom you have here today. It's thanks to the armed forces that we are experiencing today's freedom."

Before the seven-member commission began work on the lengthy report, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that Brazil's amnesty law was invalid. [7]

While the law remains in place, challenges have recently emerged. They include an appeals court ruling in September allowing the prosecution of retired members of Brazil's military in connection with the 1971 death of a former congressman [8] and a decision this month by a São Paulo tribunal allowing the prosecution of two former dictatorship agents over the disappearance of a medical student in the early 1970s.

The commission's report also focused attention on Brazil's role in Operation Condor, a regional rendition, torture and execution program in the 1970s, and the persistence of rights abuses in Brazil, especially by police forces and inside prisons, calling for the strengthening of torture prevention measures.

In contrast with the Senate's report on the C.I.A.′s interrogation program, the report by Brazil's truth commission involves not only its graphic description of rights abuses but also the identification of dictatorship operatives responsible for the crimes.

"The report names names, identifying over 300 perpetrators of human rights violations," said Peter Kornbluh, an analyst at the National Security Archive, a group based in Washington that helped the commission obtain United States documents on repression during Brazil's dictatorship. "The U.S. Senate report on torture released in Washington had redacted even the pseudonyms of the C.I.A. torturers."


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