Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has sworn in a commission that will have two years to investigate abuses.

Story highlights

The state of Rio apologizes to prisoners held during dictatorship

Brazil was a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985

A truth commission is the strongest step yet toward facing its past

There is still some controversy over the commission

CNN  — 

Some 120 Brazilians who were political prisoners during the country’s military dictatorship received official apologies from the state of Rio de Janeiro Monday.

Among those the state acknowledged was President Dilma Rousseff, though she was not present herself at the ceremony, held at a gymnasium in Rio that during the dictatorship was used to hold prisoners.

Organizers were expecting the president to attend, but instead, Special Secretary for Human Rights Maria do Rosario came as her representative, said Paula Pinto, spokeswoman for Rio’s Secretariat of Social Assistance and Human Rights.

The “reparation ceremony” is the latest in a series of public acknowledgments of abuses during 21 years of military rule from 1964 to 1985.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the return of democracy, but the steps toward reconciliation and justice have been uneven.

An amnesty law passed in 1979 was seen as an opening in relations between the military rulers and the opposition on the path to democratization, said Leonardo Avritzer, a professor of political science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

Once civilian rule returned, the federal government apologized broadly for abuses, but no blame was placed on any individual. Silence on the issue mostly followed, until now.

Earlier this month, Rousseff swore in a truth commission that will have two years to investigate abuses between 1946 and 1988, a period that includes the dictatorship.

Torture and killings under Brazil’s military dictatorship were on a much smaller scale than dictatorial atrocities in nearby Argentina and Chile but, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 475 people disappeared during that period. Thousands of others were detained and tortured.

In Argentina, by contrast, up to 30,000 disappeared.

The magnitude is different, “but the truth is, Brazil never dealt with its past,” Avritzer said. “The truth commission is a very important step in facing the past.”

So are the apologies and monetary reparations that Rio will give to Rousseff and others. Although the federal government has admitted its role before, Monday’s apology is the result of a state law that acknowledges those who were held or tortured in state facilities or held by state forces.

Since 2001, when the state law was passed, 650 people have been paid nearly $10,000 in reparations each, and another 245 are expected to be paid before the end of 2003, said Pinto.

But the most visible action to examine its past is the creation of the truth commission.

“We are not moved by revenge, or hate or a desire to write a history different from what was, but to write an unconcealed history,” Rousseff said at the emotional swearing in of the seven commission members. “Brazil deserves the truth, the new generations deserve the truth and above all deserve a factual truth.”

Among those named to the commission is Rosa Maria Cardoso Cunha, an attorney who defended Rousseff during the dictatorship.

In a show of support for the truth commission, all of Brazil’s living ex-presidents (all post-dictatorship) attended the swearing-in ceremony.

“The commission will be very important in helping to restore the mental health and political balance of Brazilians,” said Brazil historian Thomas Skidmore, a professor emeritus at Brown University.

An official accounting of the events will show the importance of the return to democracy of Brazil, said Skidmore, who lived in Brazil during parts of the military rule.

“The military wanted to impose silence to keep the public from knowing the truth about the methods of repression. Further, investigating is aimed at refuting the arguments of the military apologists who always defended themselves by claiming that they were reacting to grave threats by taking ‘normal’ police measures,” he said.

Despite the apologies, reparations and investigation, some wonder if Brazil is tackling its dark past in earnest, noting that the truth commission, has no prosecutorial powers.

International human rights organizations have called on Brazil to revoke the amnesty law and prosecute those responsible, but officials have signaled that the current policy will be maintained.

In a recent case in which the courts were given an alternative around the amnesty law, allowing a dictatorship-era prosecution, the judge backed down.

Brazilian prosecutors in the state of Para filed charges against Col. Sebastiao Curio Rodrigues de Moura for his role in a crackdown that led to the forced disappearances of five guerrillas during the dictatorship. Prosecutors argued that since the bodies were never found and the case was never closed, the amnesty period did not apply.

The judge in the case disagreed, saying in a statement: “To pretend, after more than three decades, to forget about the amnesty law to reopen the discussion over crimes that occurred during the period of the military dictatorship is a mistake that, in addition to lacking legal basis, fails to consider the historical circumstances that, in a large effort of national reconciliation, led to its creation.”

However, interpretations of the amnesty law are contested, and there are some who hold out hope that prosecutions may come in the future.

The amnesty law was not meant to cover crimes that happened outside of the official policies of the military regime, Avritzer said. According to this reading of the law, since executions and disappearances were outside of any official policies, they are actionable.

Similarly, in 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the amnesty law should not prevent authorities from investigating and prosecuting human rights violations committed during military rule.

The courts have held an opposing position, but maybe after the truth commission reveals its findings, the justices may change their view, Avritzer said.

Opposition to examining the dictatorship period has decreased over the years, but it remains controversial.

“There is considerable opposition to it by former military officers,” Skidmore said. “A number of the objections have been issued by those generals who departed in the fading hours of the military regime, timed to protect themselves from later prosecution for their ill deeds.”

In addition to the ceremony in Rio, the truth commission also will hold its second meeting on Monday.