Court Orders Brazil to Open Files in Human Rights Case

15 December 2010

By Peter Kornbluh and Erin Maskell

On Dec. 14, 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down a long-awaited decision in the case of Gomes Lund and others (Guerrilha do Araguaia) vs. Brazil. A landmark decision, this  119-page ruling forces the Brazilian government to publicly accept responsibility for grave human rights violations committed during the military regime, open its archives to the families of victims of repression, and pay millions of dollars in reparations.

The ruling is the first time an international court has held the Brazilian state liable for these offenses; because of Brazil’s amnesty law, no Brazilian military officer has ever been successfully prosecuted.  If the incoming government of Dilma Roussef complies with the ruling and declassifies the long-secret military archives on abuses, the IACHR decision could become a benchmark in the elusive search for truth, accountability and justice for human rights offenses  in Brazil as well as Latin America as a whole.

The case–Lund vs. Brazil–revolves around the military’s counterinsurgency campaign against Guerrilha do Araguaia–a resistance movement made up of young militants of the Brazilian Communist Party, between April 1972 and January 1975. Between 3 and 10,000 members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and federal police launched a major offensive against members of the Guerrilha do Araguaia. Members of the group were detained; after being identified, they were killed and buried secretly in the rainforest. Some evidence indicates that many of their bodies were later unearthed and burned or thrown into rivers in the region. Approximately 62 insurgents remain disappeared.

For years, the Brazilian military denied existence of the counterinsurgency movement in Araguaia, and prohibited media sources from printing any news on the subject.

The court ruled that the Brazilian state is responsible for the forced disappearance of the members of Guerrilha Do Araguaia, and committed violations of their rights to life, liberty, and personal integrity, freedom of thought and expression, and the right to fair judicial proceedings. The court deemed the amnesty laws that had previously protected the military by impeding prosecutions of human rights violations to be incompatible with the Inter-American Declaration of Human Rights. According to the court, Brazil’s controversial amnesty laws should no longer serve as an obstacle to the investigation and prosecution of human rights cases.

According to the ruling, the state is responsible for finishing the investigation of events surrounding the disappearance of approximately 70 guerrillas in Araguaia and pursuing appropriate judicial process against the perpetrators.  In addition to punishing those responsible for these crimes, the Court ruled that the state is responsible for making every effort to determine the locations of the disappeared and to return their remains to their families. Additionally, the government will be required to pay $3,772,000 in reparations to the families of 58 disappeared persons, pay for the medical and psychological care needed by victims (the family members of the disappeared), and develop an obligatory training course on human rights for all levels of the armed forces.

Access to Information Mandated

One of the most important conclusions of this case is the affirmation of the victims’ right to the access of information about the disappearances.  The Brazilian government, the ruling stated, “is required to continue developing initiatives for the search, systematization, and publication of all information about the Araguaia guerrilla, along with information relating to human rights violations that occurred during the military regime, and guarantee access to this information.”

Restrictions on the right to access information detailing military actions against the Guerrilha do Araguaia could not be justified, the court ruled. The government has no legitimate reason to keep secret information related to massive human rights violations, according to the IACHR; releasing this information would in no way endanger national security. In a dramatic statement, the ruling declared that the lack of knowledge and false information given to relatives of disappeared persons was “comparable to torture.”

The court ordered the Brazilian government to transfer to the National Archive all military and intelligence documentation of counterinsurgency actions against the Guerrilha and any records that would help to locate the bodies of the disappeared–and to allow public access to these files.

Up until now, the Brazilian military has resisted all attempts by judges, lawyers and victims’ families to obtain documentation on the atrocities of the past.  The ruling could bring Brazil’s procedures for providing access to information into the modern age.

This decision carries important implications for other countries in Latin America where amnesty laws have impeded prosecution and military agencies have resisted opening up archives on repression of the past.  It is certain to establish a legal precedent for bringing pressure on military and intelligence services throughout the region to declassify their files on abuses of the past.

The decision in Spanish.


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