Brazil is close to creating a Truth Commission to investigate abuses committed during its 1964-1985 military dictatorship, ending a 26-year taboo on delving deeply into the period but falling short of calls for human rights abusers to face justice.
A bill to create the commission, loosely based on South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has won the backing of the still-influential armed forces and enough support in Congress for President Dilma Rousseff to sign off on it in coming weeks, government officials say.
Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was tortured with beatings and electric shocks in the early 1970s, made creating the body one of her priorities for her first year in office that has so far been dogged by graft scandals and a lack of progress on reforms, Reuters reports.
But she has had to steer a delicate path between long-standing demands from the leftist wing of her Workers’ Party to address the abuses and the military’s rejection of anything that smacks of “revenge.”
As a result, the new body will be a timid step compared to Brazil’s regional neighbors such as Argentina and Chile, where former military top brass have been tried and imprisoned.
The Brazilian military’s long-held opposition to a commission has eased since last year when the Supreme Court upheld the interpretation of the country’s 1979 Amnesty Law, which protects suspected torturers from facing trials.
The commission’s aim is not to apportion blame, but to “rescue memories” and give Brazilians the first comprehensive history of abuses committed during the period, officials say.
“At the moment the most important thing is memory,” said Jose Genoino, special adviser for the defense ministry.
“This is more radical than condemning anyone. After we have memory and truth, there may be other questions.”
According to the draft bill, the commission will work for two years and be composed of seven members to be chosen by Rousseff. It will have power to call witnesses to investigate abuses committed both by the military and by guerrillas. In line with the Amnesty Law, though, it will have no powers to try or condemn suspects.
South Africa’s version had 17 commissioners, three committees and the power to decline requests for amnesty.
“While that (Amnesty Law) stands it’s very difficult to see how the issue of very long-term impunity for these cases is going to be dealt with,” said Patrick Wilcken, a London-based Brazil campaigner for rights group Amnesty International.
“Once again Brazil seems to be dragging its feet and is behind the times as far as the region is concerned.”
The commission’s creation would come as Brazil — which aspires to a greater world role and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — comes under mounting international pressure to punish past injustices.
The Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, condemned Brazil last December for the forced “disappearance” of 62 suspected leftist militants in the early 1970s and its failure to allow prosecutions for dictatorship abuses.
About 500 Brazilians were killed or “disappeared,” far fewer than in Argentina or Chile — a difference that has contributed to Brazil’s reluctance to dig up its past. No one has ever been sentenced for dictatorship-era crimes in Brazil.
But torture was common and rights activists say the failure to hold abusers to account contributes to current-day problems, such as widespread police brutality.
Despite being disappointed by its small size and toothlessness, groups representing torture victims in Brazil say it could be an important step forward and, eventually, open the path to prosecutions.
“We think that cases found to be criminal should be sent to court — we want a Truth and Justice Commission,” said Rose Nogueira, a member of the Torture Never Again group who was imprisoned for nine months in 1969.
“First, we need to have the true story of what happened in Brazil for the next generation.”