An emotional Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who was jailed and tortured during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, on Wednesday swore in a seven-member truth commission tasked with probing human rights abuses from that period.
“Brazil deserves the truth, the new generations deserve the truth and above all, those who lost friends and relatives and who continue to suffer as if they were dying again each day deserve the truth,” she said, choking back tears as she mentioned names of relatives of the victims.
Also attending the solemn ceremony at the presidential palace were all of Rousseff’s living predecessors: former Brazilian presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010); Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002); Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992); and Jose Sarney (1985-1990), who also is the current Brazilian Senate speaker.
Over the next two years, the truth panel will probe politically motivated abductions, rights abuses and murders perpetrated from 1946 to 1988, a time span exceeding the dictatorship.
However, a 1979 amnesty law for those who carried out the dictatorship-era crimes was upheld by the Brazilian Supreme Court in 2010 and remains in effect.
In a message that was read aloud during the ceremony, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described the creation of the panel as “a necessary and very hopeful step.”
“Truth panels are part of a strategy of transitional justice. They can include trials and reparations,” said Pillay, whose country, South Africa, pioneered the scheme to probe apartheid-era crimes.
The 63-year-old Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla and economist who has been president since early last year, joined the battle against the military dictatorship at age 16 in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais State.
She was a member of various revolutionary groups, although she has said that she never shot or killed anyone.
In 1970, she was arrested in Sao Paulo, was held for nearly three years and was repeatedly tortured in hopes she would identify her fellow guerrillas.
Some of Rousseff’s former -cellmates were invited to the swearing-in along with relatives of victims of the dictatorship.
“This panel can be a beginning, but I want the torturers to stand trial. I don’t accept the amnesty,” said Ieda Akselrud de Seixas, who knew Rousseff in jail.
Lula pushed for establishment of the truth panel, sparking a crisis with the military in late 2009.
A compromise was finally reached under which the government agreed to have the panel probe abuses committed during a period broader than the dictatorship years and to probe acts of political dissidents, not just state repression.
The panel is made up of Judge Gilson Dipp, former Brazilian justice minister Jose Carlos Dias, lawyers Rosa Maria Cardoso da Cunha and Jose Paulo Cavalcanti Filho, former prosecutor Claudio Fontelles, sociologist Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and psychologist Maria Rita Kehl.
It marks the first time Brazil has endeavored to provide some accounting for the dictatorship-era rights abuses.