Report Implicates U.S. In Brazilian Dictatorship’s Torture Practices


By Joaquim Moreira Salles

The scope of CIA torture revealed in this week’s Senate Intelligence Committee report has come as a shock to many, but America’s involvement with torture predates the terrorist attacks on 9/11. This week Brazil published its very own torture report as part of an investigation into the crimes perpetrated during the country’s 21 year-long U.S. backed military dictatorship. It confirms what historians have been writing about for years: that torture and other human rights abuses were systemic within the regime, and that the military received extensive training by the U.S. and the U.K. on torture and other repressive techniques.

Two and a half years ago, the Brazilian government established the National Truth Commission (CNV) to conduct the first formal investigation into the military dictatorship, a brutal regime that began in 1964 and ended in 1985. The final report confirms that the U.S. played a direct role in encouraging state sponsored torture in Brazil. According to the 2,000 page document — and backed by extensive historiography — , over 300 members of the Brazilian military spent time at the School of the Americas, run out of Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, where they had “theoretical and practical lessons on torture, which would later be replicated in Brazil,” the report notes.

The school was one of the main tools used by the U.S. government to deter perceived communist threats in Latin America, and gave instruction to dictatorial militaries across the continent. A Pentagon manual released in 1996 details the curriculum, which encourages the use of torture, blackmail, and arresting the families of those being questioned. The commission’s report also details how Brazilian officers received further torture training by the Secret Service in London during the 1970s.

The commission has reaffirmed the work of historians, and shown that the Brazilian military took what they learned to heart. Over the course of 21 years of military rule, torture became a defining characteristic of the regime, used as a “bureaucratic tool” to extract information and discourage any form of opposition. Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, was herself brutally tortured over the course of the three years she spent in military custody. Some of the techniques, such as waterboarding, as well as accounts of death under torture, should be familiar to anyone who has read the Senate’s own report on torture that came out this week.

Rousseff is known for her stoic demeanor, but the President was unable to hold back tears as she gave a speech at the unveiling of the commission’s final report on Wednesday. “Brazil deserves the truth. The new generations deserve the truth,” she said. “And most of all, those who deserve the truth are those who lost family members, friends, companions and continue to suffer as if they died again each and every day.”
Contrary to the U.S. Senate report, the Truth Commission has identified the individuals responsible for human rights abuses by name. Over 300 people are identified, roughly 100 of which are still alive. Now, many are calling for those responsible to face trial not only for torture, but also for the assassination or “disappearance” of 425 people over the course of the military regime.

As of now, regime insiders are protected by an amnesty law passed in 1979, which gives full immunity to those involved in human rights abuses. In the wake of the new report, torture survivors and the families of the dead are calling for an end to amnesty. The Truth Commission itself has argued that immunity should not apply to torturers or those accused of murder because their actions constitute “crimes against humanity.” Perhaps even more hurtful for the victims than the impunity enjoyed by human rights abusers is the fact that the Brazilian military still denies that torture and killings were systemic, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The debate mirrors one that has re-emerged here in the U.S. over whether or not the perpetrators of torture should be held responsible for their actions. The U.N. has joined the members of the Truth Commission in their calls for justice and extended its remarks to include the torturers implicated in the Senate report that came out this week.

“The Convention [Against Torture] lets no one off the hook — neither the torturers themselves, nor the policy-makers, nor the public officials who define the policy or give the orders,” said The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein.

“While it will take time to fully analyze the contents of these two landmark reports — and I do not wish to pre-empt that analysis — we can still draw some stark conclusions about the failures to eradicate this serious international crime, for which there should be no statute of limitations and no impunity,” he said.