Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Records of Brazil's dark past surface after years of denial


As if by magic, incriminating documents supposedly incinerated years ago by the government have suddenly reappeared. As a result, Brazil is being forced to confront one of the most distasteful aspects of its past: The death, disappearance or torture of hundreds of political prisoners during 21 years of military dictatorship.

For years, the military and state intelligence agencies swore that no records of that dark era still existed.

"They were all legally destroyed in the '80s and '90s, in accordance with established procedures," Jose Viegas, the civilian minister of defense at the time, said in an interview late in 2003, citing assurances he said he had received from the military high command.

But in October, a pair of photographs said to be those of Vladimir Herzog, a political prisoner killed in 1975, unexpectedly resurfaced. In the outcry that followed, the former military intelligence agent who supplied the pictures said that thousands of pages of other documents supposedly destroyed after democracy was restored in 1985 were in fact in secret archives still out of the reach of civilian authorities.

Reluctantly, the state intelligence agency and the intelligence branches of the Armed Forces admitted the claim was true. Since then, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former labor leader who was himself briefly jailed by the dictatorship, has been grappling with the problem of what to do with the documents and how to punish senior intelligence and military officials, some still serving, who lied about the records' destruction.

In files that have already been opened, some shocking discoveries have been made. Joao Luiz Pinaud, director of the government's Special Commission on the Death and Disappearance of Political Prisoners until late last year -- when he resigned, complaining of a lack of official support -- said he had opened one crate of papers and found almost an entire skeleton, apparently of a guerrilla killed more than 30 years ago in the Amazon.

"Not only were documents concealed, illegally destroyed and lied about, but bodies were hidden, cemeteries were vandalized and witnesses were coerced, all of which are crimes," said Pinaud, a former judge and now a law professor. "My question is what, if anything, the government intends to do about it."

Initially, the army sought to justify its mistreatment of political prisoners, leading to a confrontation that resulted in the resignation of Viegas. He stepped down in November after da Silva declined to fire or even publicly rebuke the army commander, General Francisco Albuquerque, for what political commentators here described as a lack of discipline and a breach of the principle of civilian supremacy.

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