Brazil regime crimes are above the law — for now

Micheas Gomes de Almeida best known as "Zezinho do Araguaia," the last surviving guerrilla fighter after the military regime (1964 to 1985), walks by the landing strip of a former military base in Xambioa, Tocantins, in northern Brazil, in March 2004. Zezinho participated in a group searching for secret graves of guerrilla rebels gone missing missing during the dictatorship.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Few who know of Colonel Sebastiao Curio Rodrigues de Moura doubt that he was behind the disappearances of dozens of Brazilians.

In the 1970s, he commanded clandestine operations in the northern jungle, where leftist guerrillas and peasants were kidnapped, tortured and often never seen again.

And yet, Curio, 77, has never had to go into hiding to duck the law.

After battling leftists, he started a family in a small nearby town, Curionopolis, named after him. He served as its mayor — three times.

He has even spoken openly with the media about where the bodies of slain leftists are buried, and about the location of their final battles with the military.

But his words, so far, have not been self-incriminating: Curio is protected by a national amnesty law.

Now, federal prosecutors want him to face justice. For the first time, they want to bring criminal charges against a military official from Brazil’s 1964 to 1985 dictatorship.

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While neighboring countries have prosecuted officials for committing “dirty war” rights abuses, no army official from Brazil’s regime has faced charges.

Last week, a judge refused to take the case on the grounds that it would violate the amnesty law. Passed in 1979, the law protects military members from facing dictatorship-era charges, in exchange for handing over governance to civilians.

Trying to reopen the debate on dictator-era crimes is mistaken, the court said in a statement, given that the amnesty law is a product of Brazil’s “great effort for national reconciliation.”

The courts’ lack of receptiveness to Curio’s case — as well as the indifference harbored by many Brazilians — could keep the amnesty intact.

But Tiago Modesto Rabelo, the lead prosecutor pursuing Curio, says repealing the amnesty law, which covers crimes in a period of 1961 to 1979, isn’t their goal.

He and his colleagues argue that forced disappearances during the army’s battle with leftists — and efforts to hide the bodies since then — constitute a “permanent crime” that continues until today.

“The intention is to understand that these crimes are permanent,” Modesto Rabelo said.

The prosecutors say they are preparing to appeal the judge’s decision, in the hopes of filing five kidnapping counts against Curio for his involvement in Para.

The United Nations has urged Brazil to let the charges be filed as a “first and crucial step” in fighting impunity.

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If convicted, Curio could face up to 40 years in prison.

In 1964, Brazil’s military toppled leftist President Joao Goulart, on the grounds that it had to prevent a budding communist threat. The coup ushered in a dictatorship that lasted until 1985. The regime was responsible for an estimated 475 deaths and disappearances, and thousands of cases of illegal detainment and torture.

Communist combatants resisted the dictatorship. Rebels set up a base in Para, in Brazil’s northern jungle, in the 1970s, in hopes of staging a Marxist revolution.

Army troops hunted down and killed some 60 rebels from the movement, launching napalm bombs in their trail, in some of the fiercest crackdowns of the dictatorship. Those thought to have information about the guerrillas were kidnapped and tortured.

Beyond the judicial hurdles, Brazil faces perhaps an even greater challenge to investigating and bringing dictatorship crimes to justice — a prospering society that is, in many ways, leaving that period behind.

Nearly three out of four Brazilian respondents to a recent survey did not know what the amnesty law is, according to recent research by the Institute for Applied Economic Research.

Brazil’s dictatorship was cruel, but it resulted in fewer known cases of torture and disappearance than the notorious regimes in neighboring Chile and Argentina. The period is an “abstract issue” for many Brazilians who are less likely to know a victim personally, Manuela Picq said, a researcher at the Federal University of Amazonas, who was raised in exile during the regime.

“Everybody agrees it was bad to kill people and to torture them in the way it was done by the military,” Picq said. “The society at large is saying, ‘yes, we agree [that dictatorship crimes were wrong]. But since there are so many other issues, are we going to spend our energy on this?’”

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Successive governments have paid reparations to former imprisoned dissidents, while keeping the amnesty law in place and inhibiting charges against military officials.

“Brazil is very late with respect to other countries in this issue of reconciliation for crimes committed during the dictatorship,” says Janaina de Almeida Teles, a historian who was imprisoned as a 5 year old with her parents during the military regime. “The majority of the mothers in these cases of disappearances have already died [without seeing investigations carried out],” she adds.

Almeida Teles says she hopes that as Brazil prospers, people will reflect more, not less, on their past.

Prosecutors at Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry believe the Curio case would be a good start.

“It’s an important and delicate moment for our country that has to fulfill its duty in the area of transitional justice into a full democracy,” says Raquel Dodge, the ministry’s coordinator of the chamber on criminal prosecutions.