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Historic Court Ruling Empowers Brazil to Confront Its Dark Past

Deputy Rubens Paiva with his wife, Eunice. (Photo: Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly)

Deputy Rubens Paiva with his wife, Eunice. Photo from the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly

[All links lead to pages in Portuguese except when otherwise noted.]

Five retired Brazilian military officers stand formally accused of torture and death of Deputy Rubens Paiva [en] in 1971, during the country's military regime. On May 26, 2014, in what is being seen as a historic ruling, a Federal Court of Justice admitted the case against the retired officers, thereby opening a chapter from Brazil's dark past.

In March this year, retired Colonel Paulo Malhães confessed [en] to the murder of Rubens Paiva as well as mutilating and hiding his body. He later retracted his testimony, saying that he feared for his life. A month later, Malhães was murdered [en] in a supposed armed robbery at his residence, a case that is still being investigated. New evidence discovered in his home, such as documents quoting the involvement of the aforementioned five military officers, were used by the public prosecutor's office to build a case against them.

The court's ruling was unprecedented. Former Minister of Human Rights, Maria do Rosário, tweeted

Fundamental for the country's democratic history, charges against military officers for the torture, disappearance and death of Rubens Paiva. 

Meanwhile, right-wing blogger Reinaldo Azevedo said that the judge’s decision was the “most exotic reasoning I've ever read.” The country's Amnesty Law, which has been reinterpreted to protect members of the dictatorship from prosecution, is still valid. So, according to Azevedo, even though the military regime never held the legal right of torturing and murdering (especially someone like the deputy, who was not a “terrorist”) the current accusations should hold no legal value. 

However, Judge Caio Márcio Gutterres Taranto ruled that the accusations against the five officers stem from crimes in the Penal Code, not political crimes. Therefore, the defendants are not protected under the umbrella of the country's Amnesty Law.

The defendants can still appeal the decision.

Historical decision

The latest court decision belongs to a celebrated chapter in Brazil’s history, with the nation working towards making amends for years of silence on its dark period of dictatorship. Since the creation of the National Truth Commission in 2012, the country has been facing the untold memories of its past. A preliminary report found that there were 17 clandestine torture centers in the country at the time. 

Rubens Paiva’s case is one of the most emblematic. As deputy for the Brazilian Labour Party [en] in Sao Paulo, Paiva was forced to relinquish his position after the military coup in 1964.

Prior to the coup, Paiva was also a member of the investigative committee created to examine [en] the activities of two important NGOs – the Institute for Social Research and Studies (Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Sociais) and the Brazilian Institute for Democratic Action (Instituto Brasileiro de Ação Democrática). The committee found that these organizations were bribing military officers for data which was then being used it to propagate the idea of “the red menace”- to create a fear that Brazil was about to be taken over by communists. The money, in turn was used to sponsor the military's coup d’état.

After a period of living in exile in Chile, Paiva returned to Brazil and was arrested by the police in 1971 from his home in Rio de Janeiro. After that he disappeared and despite the official version given at the time that he was kidnapped while in custody, it was widely suspected that he had been killed. It is now coming to light that after being tortured, he was brutally murdered and his teeth and the tips of his fingers were removed to prevent identification [en]. 

Long way to go

After Paiva’s death, it is being speculated that another case, the “Slaughter of Foz do Iguaçu National Park” could also find its way back into the courts.. Known as the “Park Slaughter”, the episode ended in the death of six political activists - five Brazilians and one Argentinian – but their remains were never found. The case is now being re-investigated by academic institutions and the National Truth Commission so that the truth behind the case may be revealed and culpability affixed, thereby bringing closure to the mysterious death and disappearance of the political activists in question.

In spite of the advances achieved so far by the National Truth Commission, much remains to be discovered about the real history of Brazil’s dictatorship. Journalist Juliana Dal Piva claimed during one of the commission's sessions that all those working to unearth the truth – reporters, the commission and even the public prosecutor's office still have to struggle to obtain information from the armed forces. 

Perhaps the criminal conviction of some of the torturers of the military regime can mark the beginning of real change.

If convicted, two of the five retired military officers who stand accused in court, could receive a sentence of 37 years in prison for homicide, while the other three could face 10 years for procedural fraud, armed criminal association and the crime of hiding of a corpse.

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