The following is a guest post kindly contributed by Dr. Nina Schneider from the University of Hagen, Germany.
While numerous countries in post-authoritarian South America have revoked Amnesty Laws issued under authoritarian rule, punished officials involved in repressive organs and instated truth commissions, Brazil long remained the only post-military country in South America to neither instate a truth commission nor prosecute state officials involved in human rights crimes. Only in November 2011, 26 years after the formal return to democracy, did the current Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, sign the law to instate a National Truth Commission. The law has been delayed, significantly amended, and in the eyes of many human rights activists and victim families now represents a compromised or watered-down version.
For decades the Brazilian state has tactically silenced its military past. Between 1964 and 1985 Brazil, like most other countries on the Latin American continent, was governed by an authoritarian regime. This illegal regime seized power by force, passed dictatorial laws and suppressed political opponents. In 1969/1970 a systematic and nationwide repression network was installed which killed an estimated 474 people (official number of the HR Report of 2007), tortured 20.000 people, and forced an estimated 10,000 Brazilian citizens into exile. One of the victims of torture was the Brazilian President Rousseff herself, who was imprisoned for more than two years and suffered nearly three weeks of torture.
The National Truth Commission will be the first official initiative to systematically clarify the circumstances of these human rights abuses committed by the state. In 1995, a so-called Special Commission was instated to shed light on state violence during the period of the dictatorship, but it has lacked sufficient resources as well as state and public support. The National Truth Commission in Brazil is supposed to start in 2012 and work for the period of two years. It will cover the period from 1946 until 1988, but the victims of the regime (1964-1985) are likely to be the key focus. President Rousseff is expected to nominate the commissioners shortly.
Many victims and human rights organisations are dissatisfied with the weak mandate of the truth commission. In particular, they demand the possibility to convene and to punish perpetrators. Currently, former human rights transgressors are protected from prosecution by the 1979 Amnesty Law which has been confirmed by the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) recently. The Truth Commission has also been attacked by retired military generals in a manifesto published in March 2012. The Rousseff government has announced plans to punish the signatories for disobedience to the law and the Brazilian President. Meanwhile leading Brazilian lawyers and filmmakers published manifestos in support of the truth commission. Among the Brazilian public, the military regime remains a highly controversial topic. Many Brazilians still have positive memories of that era or are indifferent towards human rights crimes in the past.
Nina Schneider holds a PhD in History from the University of Essex, UK, and worked at the Department of European and Extra-European History at the Open University of Germany. She is going on a research trip to Brazil shortly and will be a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) at Columbia University from September 2012 onwards. Recent publications include Breaking the Silence of the Mil. Regime: New Politics of Memory in Brazil?, Bulletin of Latin American Research 30/2 (2011) (http://www.fernuni-hagen.de/geschichte/institut/team/nina.schneider_lg3.shtml).