The former guerilla, jailed and tortured under the military regime now pledges that Brazil’s Truth Commission will seek no revenge. President Dilma Rousseff, after years of postponement, finally appointed the “Comissão da Verdade” (Truth Commission) on May 10.
By Thierry Ogier, Sao Paulo
It was officially installed on May 16 and given two years to investigate the disappearance and torture of militants between 1946 and 1988. The period is much longer than that of the 1964-1985 military regime, in order to avoid focus on the army. But most of the investigations will cover the darkest period of the repression between the late 1960s and early 1970s, when around 500 people were killed or disappeared.
Dilma Rousseff, who joined the leftist guerillas and fought against the military regime during her youth, was tortured in 1970. Now president, she completed a process that was – slowly and painfully – initiated under previous governments. In a rare symbol of unity, the four living former presidents of the re-democratisation period attended the commission’s inauguration.
Dilma, emotional, spoke of “those who lost friends and relatives, and who keep on suffering as if they died all over again every day”. The Truth Commission is composed of seven respected academic and legal experts. It includes the lawyer who defended Dilma Rousseff during the dictatorship, Rosa Maria Cardoso da Cunha. Also, officials from the Cardoso government, former justice minister José Carlos Dias, and former human rights secretary Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. Gilson Dipp, a high court judge, was appointed the commission’s first coordinator. Other members are Cláudio Fonteles, a retired magistrate who was Lula’s attorney general, José Paulo Cavalcanti Filho, a lawyer, and psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl.
There will be severe limitations imposed on the commission, however. It will meet fortnightly in Brasilia and will be – at least initially - dependent on the Casa Civil, the presidency’s civil staff unit. A source at the presidency says the structure, the number of staff and the budget of the commission have not yet been defined. The budget will then be discretionary and the commission will depend on the presidency to define the scope of its investigations.
Dilma Rousseff warned against any attempt to seek revenge after the historical truth is restored. This indicates another limit to the Truth Commission, which is not mandated to seek to challenge the 1979 amnesty law, although human rights activists say torture and disappearance should be considered as crimes against humanity that cannot be amnestied. Brazil’s human rights minister, Maria do Rosario Nunes, recently defended such views, but she has found little support in the government. Furthermore, the predominant view is that Brazil’s supreme court put a full stop to the debate when it upheld the scope of the amnesty law in 2010.
Not revenge or punishment
The mobilisation of retired army officers backing the army’s push for the Truth Commission to investigate crimes committed by guerilla groups is causing further controversy. Former defence minister Nelson Jobim said such a condition had been negotiated during the first Lula government (although the then human rights minister Paulo Vannuchi denies this). But at least one member of the commission seems inclined to consider examining crimes committed by anti-government groups (José Carlos Dias), although several others have publicly ruled this out.
Brazil has long avoided re-opening old wounds, but has at last managed to set up a Truth Commission that seeks reconciliation, not revenge or punishment. This is the result of its young democracy, now stable enough to seek the truth, following a long soul-searching process. Defence minister Celso Amorim described the episode as the “epilogue to the democratic transition”.
Certainly the truth, if and when it surfaces, will come too late for victims and human rights groups. But it is the price Brazil is paying to avoid the kind of post-dictatorship confrontation and legal battle that occurred in other Latin American countries. This may spark criticism in international fora, such as the Human Rights Commission of the Organisation of American States (OAS) – but regarding its truth commission, Brazil seems satisfied in doing it – its own way.