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Brazil: Prosecute Dictatorship-Era Abuses

Landmark International Decision Provides Powerful Push for Accountability


Brazil should prosecute human rights abuses committed during the 1964-1985 dictatorship following a landmark legal decision, Human Rights Watch said today. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated that amnesties and statutes of limitations cannot be applied to crimes against humanity that were committed during Brazil's military dictatorship.

The commission's conclusion, announced on April 8, 2009, marks the first international decision relating to abuses that took place during the military dictatorship in Brazil, from 1964 to 1985. The petition was brought by relatives of 70 persons forcibly disappeared by the military during its operations against the Araguaia communist guerrilla movement in the 1970s.

"Brazil has had neither trials nor even a truth commission to address the very serious crimes that took place, and is lagging behind the region in accountability for past abuses," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "It's been nearly a quarter century since the transition to democracy. The victims and their families have waited too long for justice."

No Brazilian official has been criminally charged for human rights violations committed during the dictatorship. The 1979 Amnesty Law has thus far effectively barred such prosecutions.

Calls for accountability in Brazil have grown in the past two years. Brazil's highest court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, is currently deciding challenges to the Amnesty Law's applicability to human rights violations and to the laws allowing for the permanent secrecy of government documents. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's solicitor general's office (Advocacia Geral da Uniao) has opposed such challenges and filed briefs in support of the status quo.

The Brazilian military regime from 1964 to 1985 was responsible for systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and the curtailment of free expression. According to official estimates, around 50,000 persons were detained just in the first months of the dictatorship and roughly 10,000 went into exile at some point during that period. Brazil: Never Again (Brasil: Nunca Mais), an authoritative report secretly researched using the archives of Brazil's military justice system and released by the Sao Paulo Archdiocese in 1985, described 1,918 accounts of torture from 1964 to 1979 and noted that its source material excluded an "incalculable" number of other cases.

The Brazilian government has yet to produce a comprehensive account of the state's abuses during the period, though some limited accountability measures have been put in place. For example, Brazil has provided for the payment of reparations to victims of the dictatorship. And in 2007, the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances officially recognized the state's responsibility in 356 cases before it, yet it noted that the non-disclosure of key documents meant that it was unable to locate remains in the majority of the disappearance cases it reviewed.

"Brazil has a duty to investigate fully and prosecute past human rights violations regardless of the Amnesty Law," Vivanco said.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.