Brazil took its most significant step yet to address the human rights violations of its military dictatorship on Wednesday, releasing an exhaustive report that documents nearly two decades of government-approved political killings and torture.
After 30 years of impunity for crimes of the state, the National Truth Commission report names 377 people allegedly responsible for 434 deaths and disappearances, and thousands of acts of torture. The list includes top regime figures who instituted policies of persecution, and lowly soldiers who carried them out.
The nearly 2,000-page report describes crimes against humanity in excruciating detail, and calls for the perpetrators to be prosecuted.
But while the commission's work has renewed debate on how Brazil has handled its dirty-war legacy, there's little political will for overturning a 1979 amnesty law that has protected both military figures and leftists ever since the 1964-1985 dictatorship. Only 46 percent of Brazilians said they want to scrap the amnesty, while 37 percent supported it and another 17 percent said they were unsure in a survey published in March by the respected Datafolha polling group.
Even President Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who was savagely tortured in the 1970s, seems unwilling to push for prosecutions.
"Truth doesn't mean vengeance. Truth mustn't be the source of hatred or score-settling," Rousseff said in an emotional ceremony as the report was made public. "Truth frees us all from that which went unsaid . It frees us from what remained hidden."
"We, who believe in the truth, hope that this report contributes to make it so that ghosts from the sad and painful past are no longer able to find shelter in silence and omission," she said, pausing several times to stave off tears as the audience in the capital of Brasilia rose in a standing ovation.
Created by Congress in 2011, the seven-member commission researched government and corporate archives and hospital and morgue records. Commissioners conducted more than 1,200 interviews with victims, their families and their alleged perpetrators. The panel consulted with religious leaders, and visited the military installations where "subversives" including students, labor unionists, factory workers, farm workers, indigenous tribespeople, gays and others were tortured and killed.
In all, the report documents 224 killings and 210 disappearances. These were not rare exceptions, but rather the result of a "systematic practice" by the military, it said.
"Repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state," the report said. The commission "therefore totally rejects the explanation offered up till today that the serious violations of human rights constituted a few isolated acts or excesses resulting from the zeal of a few soldiers."
The report does not examine crimes committed by leftists during Brazil's dictatorship era.
This nearly three-year effort is the most thorough accounting to date of the crimes of the military regime, and provides a new official death toll, but its authors said continuing resistance from the military left an unknown number of victims unaccounted for.
"These numbers certainly don't correspond to the total of deaths and disappearances," the report cautioned, "but only to cases it was possible to prove."
The document weaves together a detailed, harrowing, almost blow-by-blow narrative of the victims' ordeals.
Rousseff, who was one of the leaders of an armed militant group but has denied participating in any violence before her arrest at age 22, was among those interviewed, a rarity for a politician who has generally avoided talking about her experience.
In the report, Rousseff details torture she underwent in detention, including taking such hard punches to the face that many of her teeth were knocked out, causing her jaw problems to this day. She also was subjected to electrical shocks, beatings and long hours in the "macaw's perch" stress position, which kept her hanging upside down, her arms and legs strapped to a wooden pole.
It was physical agony, but detainees suffered even more damaging psychological impacts, she said.
"None of us can explain the lasting damages — we'll just always be different," said Rousseff.
"I was held for three years. The stress was fierce. ... I faced death and loneliness," she said. "There is something to it that will mark us for life. The scars of torture are part of me."
Brazil's neighbors are decades ahead in addressing human rights violations from South America's dictatorship era. Argentina did away with its amnesty and generated a broad consensus around prosecuting those responsible. Uruguay still has laws protecting both sides in its dirty war, but has found ways of prosecuting some military figures nonetheless. Chile has sentenced hundreds to harsh prison sentences.
Three bills in Congress would loosen or undo the amnesty, and the left wing of the ruling coalition supports them, but Rousseff has never suggested changing the law, and without high-level Workers' Party backing, their approval is unlikely.
Brazil's Supreme Court also considers the question closed. Hours after the report's release Justice Marco Aurelio Mello told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper the court will not revisit its 2010 decision upholding the amnesty law's constitutionality.
"We need to get it through our heads that amnesty is forgetting, turning the page, pardoning in every sense of the word — and for both sides," Mello said. "We're going to fix Brazil for the future, not for the past."
That's not enough for Fatima Oliveira Setubal. The 61-year-old teacher, twice detained and tortured while working with the poor in a Rio de Janeiro church, called the report a "historic and important step," but yearns for more.
"We need to keep fighting," said Setubal, whose two brothers were killed under the dictatorship. "We cannot stop if there is no punishment of the crimes, no trial for the torturers."
Contributors include Brad Brooks and Yesica Fisch in Rio de Janeiro and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo.