Brazilians Get Ready to Dig Up the Truth

(IPS) – The bill to establish a National Truth Commission in Brazil, which has made it through the lower house of Congress and is now in the Senate, is considered at least a start in clarifying, and preventing a repetition of, the abuses committed during the country’s 21-year dictatorship.

For some the commission, or CNV, that was approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday Oct. 19 is a watered-down or weak version of what is really needed, while others see it as the best that can be achieved at this time.

The CNV will not have the power to punish those responsible for human rights violations committed during the 1964-1985 de facto regime, and its conclusions will not give rise to court cases.

That is because of the 1979 amnesty law, which covers all cases of torture, forced disappearance and murder committed by the dictatorship, as well as crimes by left-wing guerrillas active during that period.

But the simple fact that the truth commission was created “represents a step forward with relation to Brazil’s failure to act on this issue before,” said political analyst Mauricio Santoro of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

During the dictatorship, 475 people were forcibly disappeared, 50,000 imprisoned, and at least 20,000 tortured, according to official figures.

Although it will be “less far-reaching” than similar truth commissions created in Argentina, Chile or Peru, “it is very important with respect to the gathering of information on Brazil’s recent history, and the recognition of the importance of preserving the memory of resistance to the dictatorship,” Santoro told IPS.

The CNV will cover the period from 1946 to 1988, despite pressure from human rights groups and the families of victims of the dictatorship, who want it to merely apply to the 21-year dictatorial regime, in order to avoid a dispersion of efforts.

Aton Fon, a lawyer with the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, said that is a weak point of the CNV, because the period covered is very broad for a commission of just seven members and 14 advisers, that will not even have its own budget, “which will compromise the quality of the work to some extent.”

In an interview with IPS, Fon said the period covered by the commission was extended as the result of an attempt to “play down the seriousness of the human rights violations committed by state security agents during the dictatorship.

“To avoid saying that only the military committed human rights abuses, the idea is to examine the entire history of Brazil,” lamented the lawyer, who attributed “the government’s backtracking” that led to the creation of a limited CNV to pressure from sectors of the military.

Another criticism is that the current format of the CNV opens up the possibility that it could include members of the military, even though the security forces were “directly involved in the repression” and serious violations like forced disappearance, secret graves, torture, and the suppression of documents, Fon said.

That participation, the activist said, would bring legal problems, because the military are subject to a strict hierarchy.

“We would see problems like having a member of the military on the commission summoning a superior to give his testimony, and in the face of possible refusal, having to respect his decision,” he said.

Another criticism is that one article of the bill creating the CNV determines that “the secret information and documents provided to the commission cannot be divulged or put at the disposal of third parties.”

Another article states that the activities of the CNV will be public except in cases in which it determines that “maintaining confidentiality is relevant to achieving its goals or to safeguarding the privacy, honour or image of individuals.”

That means “it will be a truth and memory commission only for its seven members,” and not for the whole country, “when the idea is precisely to find out about everything that happened, to overcome the past,” said Fon.

“There can be no full democracy without the possibility of knowing who did what, how it happened, and where the documents are,” he said.

The CNV was initially proposed as part of a broad human rights plan debated by different sectors of society. But under pressure from military and religious groups, it was gradually scaled back.

A CNV “like this one, that President Dilma Rousseff wants, will be a weakened commission, incapable of revealing to society the crimes of the military dictatorship,” says a statement signed by representatives of associations of former political prisoners and victims of political persecution, victims’ families, and human rights activists.

Rousseff herself was imprisoned and tortured when she was a young member of a left-wing guerrilla organisation.

Her two immediate predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) – a member of the leftist Workers Party like Rousseff – and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), also suffered under the dictatorship.

Lula spent time in prison as a trade unionist, and Cardoso, a victim of political persecution, was forced into exile in Chile.

Fon says the prevailing idea in politics today is “accepting what is possible, rather than fighting for what is necessary.”

Meanwhile, the vice president of Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again), Victoria Grabois, called the CNV “a farce.”

The activist’s brother, husband and father have been missing since 1973, when they were captured as members of the guerrillas of Araguaia, a remote area in the northern jungle state of Pará. More than 70 members of the insurgent group, created by members of the Brazilian Communist Party, were hunted down and killed by the army between 1972 and 1975 in a military operation that has yet to be clarified.

Grabois said it is unacceptable for the CNV not to be a “justice commission” as well – that is, a body with the power to bring legal action against the perpetrators of abuses.

“We understand that there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity like torture, forced disappearance and murder. It is an aberration that those who killed, tortured and kidnapped are not tried and convicted,” she told IPS.

She attributed this “fear of the truth” to civilian governments “that did not have the courage to make a break with the military.”

Comparing her country with neighbours like Argentina and Uruguay which are investigating their past and are bringing human rights violators to trial, the activist blamed the lack of legal action on “the slave mentality that still prevails in Brazil, and keeps society from becoming politicised.”

But Sueli Bellato, vice president of the Justice Ministry’s Amnesty Commission and assistant secretary of the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission, does not agree with this criticism.

“Even if we could have created a truth commission a long time ago, I think we are now mature and ready to seek out the truth about what led to a lengthy period of dictatorship in this country,” she told IPS.

Bellato, a participant in the group that drafted the bill establishing the CNV, said “the work was serious and responsible, and it took into account other experiences, and especially the characteristics of the Brazilian context.”

She mentioned two positions in dispute: “groups that believe that touching on the past would run counter to the strengthening of democracy” and “others that believe that the consolidation of democracy depends on revisiting the past and getting to the truth about what happened, by obtaining information about the whereabouts of victims of forced disappearance, who killed them, and in what circumstances.

“These revelations and the determination of who was responsible could influence today’s security policies, creating mechanisms that stand in the way of the practice of torture as a means of obtaining a confession,” she said, as an example of the positive results of the creation of a CNV – even one with a limited mandate.

“As has already happened in other countries, the commission can cover a lot of ground and overcome previously established stages. At each stage, the CNV can include in its conclusions the recommendation for a new stage,” she said.