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Torture is a self-evident crime. The torturers, those who ordered and were responsible for torture and killings during the dictatorship, had not been convicted, nor even tried or accused in a criminal proceeding, and a great number of them have remained anonymous until now. Why then, would they have been granted amnesty?




Suzana Keniger Lisbôa

 Today, 25 years after partial amnesty was granted, the consequences of the dictatorship are still difficult to deal with.  The violence that is pounding over us, either in a political form or in the form of so-called organized crime has its roots in the impunity that feeds and inspires torture, still practiced today.

 We are struggling for an amnesty that is full – for all the acts of protest against the dictatorship; general – for all the victims of the acts of exception, and unrestricted– without discrimination and exceptions. That was not what we won. To the families of the dead and politically disappeared and to the few groups that are organized around this subject falls the task of continuing the search for truth and justice. This has been a very difficult struggle. We no longer have the support of many who supported us in 1979. Nor do the political parties take up this cause. We have become inconvenient for those who would like to forget and to be silent.

 Not too long ago, Brazilian citizens and other Latin Americans were tortured and killed with refined cruelty by agents of the Brazilian State, trained by the U.S. government. These were not crimes committed in basements by a handful of crazed agents – this was a policy adopted by the Brazilian State that despite having legally instituted the death penalty, decided to act outside the law and kill without a judicial sentence.

 The Campaign for Full, General, and Unrestricted Amnesty was the first national unified movement against the military dictatorship. It represented the greatest progressive political front in our history and opened up the path to democratization. But the amnesty implemented was partial and restricted. And so it divided Brazilians, placing them in two camps: those who merited pardon and those who should be eternally condemned.

 Those who say that amnesty was for both sides have to remember that it did not benefit many political prisoners. They remained in prison until the reformulation of the Law of National Security, which reduced their sentences, allowing them to be freed conditionally. However, one interpretation of the law became very common: that the torturers had received amnesty. This does not correspond to the law. It is true that the military who allowed the law to be approved had the intention of granting amnesty to themselves, but this was not put on paper. Despite the law having been written under the oversight of the military dictatorship, the crimes practiced by the State were so barbarous that political conditions did not exist for them to receive amnesty.

 The political interpretation of the law was therefore manipulated so that people thought that amnesty would include the cases of torture, which is not true. The idea of reciprocal amnesty was part of the official discourse of the dictators, and has repercussions until today. Many people are still afraid to demand punishment of the torturers or to denounce the presence of torturers in public office.

 Torture is a self-evident crime. The torturers, those who ordered and were responsible for torture and killings during the dictatorship were not convicted, nor even tried or accused in a criminal proceeding, and a great number of them have remained anonymous until now. Why then, would they have been granted amnesty?   Not by the rule of law, but for a type of convention that characterized any call for justice as “asking for revenge”.

 Since amnesty was incomplete and unfinished, there is in its wake many other disputes, such as cases of retirement plans and repayments not put into place.  The idea of reparation, beginning with amnesty, is being built on a tortuous path, where truth and justice have been relegated to a secondary place or even ignored. Not a single request for official recognition of the responsibility of the State in the tortures, deaths, and disappearances has been accepted, as it happened in other countries.

 In Chile, President Patrício Alwin went into the National Stadium – symbol of Pinochet’s political repression – in order to apologize in the name of the State for the horrors committed by Pinochet. In Argentina, the Commander of the Army showed repentance and some of the main torturers were imprisoned and put on trial. Also, the government is effectively involved in the search for bodies.

 In Brazil, the practice of torture has been admitted by officials of the different armed services, but only as isolated actions by a few people. The Brazilian Armed Forces needs to assume their responsibility for the crimes that they promoted, starting in 1964. But the military either does not speak about the subject or when they do speak, they deny the truth, referring to the “excesses of both sides”, and never expressing repentance.

 For the disappeared, the dictatorship’s amnesty held out the hope that a certificate of presumed death would be furnished. On the day when the law was voted on in the National Congress, we presented the discovery of the body of the first person who had been disappeared: Luiz Eurico Tejera Lisbôa, a member of the National Action Liberation (ALN) who had been buried as an indigent with a false name in the Don Bosco cemetery in Perus. Until now, the circumstances of his death are still unknown.

 In these 25 years, only two bodies of disappeared were rescued and handed over to their families for burial: Denis Casemiro, rescued from the hidden ditch in the cemetery of Perus and Maria Lucia Petit da Silva, disappeared in the guerilla war of Araguaia and rescued from the cemetery of Xambioá. Twenty five years after amnesty, and forty years after the military coup, the total number of victims is still unknown.

 In 1995, we were able to implement Law 9.140, when the government recognized the death of 136 disappeared and created a Special Commission to examine the remaining cases. It was a first step in rescuing the history and the memory of those who struggled and who gave their lives for freedom. However, the main demands of the families of the dead and disappeared continue to be the same as in the era when amnesty was approved: clarifying the circumstances of the deaths and disappearances; locating, identifying, and handing over the mortal remains and punishing those responsible.

 The State recognized that it killed but it does not say how, and has not disclosed the location of the bodies. It leaves the burden of proof on the families. It’s almost unbelievable: the State killed and disappeared the bodies and the families have to furnish clues about where they are buried! The death certificates are a mockery: they contain no date, no place of burial, or cause of death, stating only the year in which the disappeared person died.

 The government has treated the issue as if it were only the family’s problem. The families have to seek, in the few archives that were made available, the proofs to contradict the stories of suicides, car accidents, and shootings. We have traveled a long and sorrowful path to get closer to historical truth. We have analyzed several documents, reports, and autopsies, trying to extract the marks of torture and death, in order to rewrite the history of our family members and of our country. We have been able to find evidence, proving that on 130 occasions the dictatorship lied in their versions of suicides, car accidents, and shootings.  

 In 1982, several families of the disappeared filed suit against the State so that the burial places of their family members would be pointed out, death certificates would be drawn up, and an official report from the Ministry of Defense would describe the military activities in the region. The military dictatorship contested the suit, alleging that there were no proofs of the deaths.

 After 21 years, Judge Solange Salgado conducted a memorable trial, recognizing the right of the families to be informed about the burial place of the disappeared. She also ruled that all the military agents who had participated in any of the operations, no matter what role they occupied at the time, would be subject to deposition.

 We considered this ruling as an important victory. However, the government appealed the ruling, and the Attorney General repeated in his appeal the arguments of the military dictatorship. The government recognized the right of the relatives to find the bodies, but stated that the judge had ordered something beyond what was asked.

 In an open letter to president Lula, we showed our indignation. Following that, the government created an inter-ministerial commission to obtain information that could lead to the location of the bodies. Up to now, no information has been released.

Twenty five years after the Second National Congress on Amnesty, held in Salvador in November 1979, we affirm the statement of that congress: 

 "(...) All of these crimes have to be put on trial. This information needs to be available to national and international people. The prisons, tortures, disappearances, and killings will not remain unpunished. The winning of Full, General, and Unrestricted Amnesty will not allow a single drop of blood to be shed in vain (...)."

 And we add: true democracy will not be built over the unburied bodies of the people who were killed and under the unpunished hands of their killers. We survive to struggle, to prevent forgetting and impunity, to rescue their lives and their histories, to say never again! Our dead cry out for and demand justice – so that they are not forgotten, so that it never happens again!        

Suzana Keniger Lisboa is a member of the Commission of Families of the Dead and Disappeared.