Unlike in Argentina in the 1980s and presently, and Chile more recently, Brazilian military officials have never stood trial for human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, due primarily to a general amnesty issued in 1979, the lack of an official Truth Commission until last year, fears over military intervention during and after democratization in the 1980s, and a general desire to “move on,” among other factors.
However, a federal judge has authorized the criminal investigation of General Alberto Brilhante Ustra and two others for their roles in the kidnapping and disappearance of a soldier who had opposed the 1964 coup. The Pan-American Post has a good summary of the case in English. Right now, the hope that Ustra and his colleagues are convicted is minimal – the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled the 1979 amnesty law cannot be reinterpreted a few years ago, and there has only been one case that tried to circumvent the amnesty – the March arrest, and subsequent release, of Colonel Sebastião Curio Rodrigues de Moura, whom a court found could not be tried due to the 1979 amnesty. I’m not hopeful that the case of Ustra will turn out any differently, but efforts to force the issue, and public discussion of it, are important, and these cases provide that kind of forced public discussion and recognition. And if Chile and Argentina have taught us anything regarding these processes, it’s that change only comes when the issues are kept public and the court systems are forced to deal with them again and again. Even if Ustra’s case ends up being dismissed, if it helps Brazil move towards better addressing its past and penalizing those guilty of human right violations, then it’s a worthwhile cause.