RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s National Truth Commission on Wednesday delivered a damning report on the killings, disappearances and acts of torture committed by government agents during the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. It called for those responsible to face prosecution.
The 2,000-page report was delivered to President Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who endured harsh torture and a long imprisonment in the early 1970s. Known for her steely demeanour, Rousseff broke down in her speech at the report’s launch ceremony in the capital, Brasilia.
Investigators spent nearly three years combing through archives, hospital and morgue records and questioning victims, their families as well as alleged perpetrators. The document represents Brazil’s most sweeping attempt yet to come to terms with the human rights abuses committed under the country’s military regime.
“Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers,” the report states.
The commission “therefore totally rejects the explanation offered up until today that the serious violations of human rights constituted a few isolated acts or excesses resulting from the zeal of a few soldiers.”
The seven-member commission, created by Congress and sworn in by Rousseff in 2011, has no prosecutorial powers, and a 1979 amnesty law passed by the military regime prevents those responsible from being tried and punished. The report calls for the repeal of the amnesty.
However, the Supreme Court in 2010 rejected a request by the Brazilian Bar Association to modify the amnesty law so that those who directly carried out killings and torture could be prosecuted.
The work exhaustively details the military’s “systematic practice” of arbitrary detentions and torture, as well as executions, forced disappearances and the hiding of bodies. It documents 191 killings and 210 disappearances committed by military authorities, as well as 33 cases of people who were disappeared and whose remains were later discovered.
“These numbers certainly don’t correspond to the total of deaths and disappearances but only to cases it was possible to prove,” the report said, citing “obstacles encountered in the investigation – especially the lack of access to armed forces’ documentation, which is officially said to have been destroyed.”
The crowd listening to Rousseff’s address gave her a standing ovation when she paused briefly, overcome by emotion.
“Brazil deserves the truth. The new generations deserve the truth. And most of all, those who deserve the truth are those who lost family members, friends, companions and continue to suffer . as if they died again each and every day,” Rousseff said, halting midway through the sentence as she fought back tears.
“We, who believe in the truth, hope that this report contributes to make it so that ghosts from a sad and painful past are no longer able to find shelter in silence,” Rousseff said.
Rosa Cardosa, a Rio de Janeiro criminal lawyer and a commission member, said that meticulously documenting the military regime’s crackdown on students, labour unionists, factory workers, indigenous tribes and others labeled as subversives is crucial to healing Brazilian society.
“I think the report helps us advance, helps us move forward, helps society to understand this problem and sheds light on it,” said Cardosa, who during the regime provided legal representation for political prisoners, including Rousseff.
The document “gives voice to the victims, to the survivors and the families who were able to tell the story of those atrocities,” she said.
Brazil’s neighbours Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have been investigating crimes committed by military regimes in the same era, and top officials have been convicted and handed harsh prison sentences.
Many observers doubt the government’s political will to push for any such changes.
“There cannot be amnesty for torturers, and for them to be held accountable for their crimes the amnesty law must be rewritten or abrogated altogether,” said Elizabeth Silveira e Silva, who heads the Torture Never Again group.
Rousseff has maintained a low profile on issues related to the dictatorship. She rarely speaks about the abuses she suffered in detention, where she was bound and hung upside down, pummeled in the face and given electric shocks.
Political opponents have branded Rousseff as a “terrorist” bent on taking Brazil in a far-left political direction.
Her past, coupled with a massive kickback corruption scandal allegedly involving Rousseff’s Workers’ Party unfolding at state-run oil company Petrobras, has led many to predict that she’s unlikely to champion any change in the amnesty law.