Araguaia Case May Challenge Brazilian Amnesty Law
June 3, 2010 By Roque Planas
RIO DE JANEIRO – When Brazil’s highest court upheld a controversial amnesty law preventing trial and punishment for political crimes committed during the military dictatorship in April, it appeared that one of the country’s most polarizing political issues had been settled for good.
But a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has put the law under scrutiny once again.
The case, Julia Gomes Lund, et al v. Brazil, concerns the alleged arbitrary detention, torture and forced disappearance of 70 people, including members of the Communist Party of Brazil and local farmers, according to a press release from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR).
It is the first time that Brazil has been called to defend itself before the IACHR for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, according to Brazilian news agency O Globo. The Brazilian government admitted responsibility for the political deaths and authorized reparations to their family members in 1995, but under the country’s 1979 amnesty law, relatives cannot bring their cases to trial in Brazil.
Relatives of the victims and representatives of the Brazilian government testified in an open hearing before the IACHR in San José, Costa Rica, on May 20 and 21.
“Even if we get a judgment unfavorable to us, I believe this is a victory,” Vitória Grabois of the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais said at a press conference at the Order of Attorneys of Brazil’s office on Wednesday.
The case is named for Júlia Gomes Lund, whose son Guilherme Gomes Lund, a marxist guerrilla, disappeared in 1973 when he was 26 years old.
Raised in Rio de Janeiro, Lund attended the Cólegio Militar, a military academy, and studied architecture at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. At the university, he became involved in left-wing student politics and was imprisoned for six months in 1968 by Brazil’s military dictatorship. Two years later he joined a guerrilla movement organized by the Communist Party of Brazil along the Araguaia river in northern Brazil.
The Brazilian government brutally repressed the uprising, which has come to be known as the Guerrilla War of Araguaia. The Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais believes Lund was killed in combat in 1973 and the Brazilian military has confirmed his death, but refused to provide further details.
“This thing of disappearing people is a act of perpetual torture,” said Cecília Bouças Coimbra, president of Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais at a recent meeting.
The case has been in the works for more than three decades. Families of the disappeared filed their first legal cases against the Brazilian government in 1982, in which they demanded information about the deaths of their relatives and the return of their bodies, according to CEJIL.
After 13 years, the relatives, represented by CEJIL, the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais and the Commissão de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos, filed their case internationally with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States (OAS). It was finally recommended to be heard by the IACHR in 2001.
“For me, as a family member (of the disappeared), having to go to the OAS for a human rights case shows how backward and small-minded our country is,” said Criméia de Almeida of the Commissão de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos. “It hurts me deeply to have to take our case to an international court because our country can’t handle it.”
A series of military dictatorships took hold of the Southern Cone in the 1960s and 1970s. When those governments transitioned to democracy during the 1980s and 1990s, they each declared, at different points, amnesty laws prohibiting prosecution for human rights violations committed for political reasons.
In Argentina and Uruguay, amnesty laws have been invalidated and challenged by the courts, but Brazil’s law, by contrast, was affirmed by the supreme court in April. The Center for Justice and International Law, which represents the families of the deceased, believes that a decision against the Brazilian government could force a reevaluation of the law.
“It was a law that was passed because of the circumstances of the time,” Wadih Damous, president of the Order of Attorneys of Brazil, referring to the amnesty law. “(This case) is going to generate a debate here,” he added.
The Court is not expected to announce a decision on the case for the next few months.
The relatives of the disappeared highlighted that regardless of the case’s outcome, they would continue to press for their demands that the government return the bodies of the disappeared and release the documentation detailing their deaths.
“We can only turn the page when the archives are opened,” Vitória Grabois said.