Brazil on the 40th Anniversary of the Amnesty Law

August 28 marks the 40th anniversary of Brazil´s Amnesty Law. Passed in 1979 as an opportunity for unity, in practice was co-opted for legalized impunity for crimes against humanity. Português

Alexandra McAnarney Alexandra Montgomery
29 August 2019, 10.45am
Portraits of victims paraded in a Public Act Protest named Dictatorship Never Again against current President Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil on August 5, 2019.
Photo: Roberto Casimiro/Fotoarena/Sipa USA. PA Images, All rights reserved.

Forty years ago, on August 28, 1979, Brazil’s Lei de Anistia (Amnesty Law) was passed, shielding all perpetrators of political crimes committed during the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship from prosecution.

Passed by then-president General Joao Figuereido, the law initially provided a framework for national reconciliation. It allowed activists-in-exile the opportunity to return to Brazil. It also gave torture victims and political dissidents a means through which to defend themselves, negotiate their release, and clear their names.

But this project was ultimately shaped by the support from members of the Brazilian military, a fact that led to the law’s unfortunate misinterpretation. What should have been an opportunity for unity, in practice was coopted for legalized impunity for crimes against humanity. The law was broadly interpreted in order to protect the institutions, which facilitated repression during the regime’s 20-year rule and cleared all military officials from being charged for their involvement in international crimes.

How the past shapes the present

On the fortieth anniversary of Brazil’s Amnesty Law, we now see the country suffer from the consequences of impunity still present from the gross violations that took place in the recent past. President Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army captain, brazenly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship and suggested that torture is a legitimate method of dealing with crime.

Several former military officials are now in charge of key government posts, including a Commission responsible for investigating the disappearances that took place during the military dictatorship. After an eight year ban and a judicial battle, a military parade was held last March to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the military dictatorship, as well as a ceremony commemorating colonel and convicted torturer Carlos Ustra. Recently, the President stated on public record that he may or may not know where the remains of the disappeared father of the President of the Brazilian Bar Association are buried.

These revisionist statements and actions are hurtful to the victims of the military regime, who must live with the deaths and disappearances of their loved ones on a daily basis. They also celebrate impunity and militarization, abetting other types of future violence. On several occasions, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I-A Court) highlighted the obstacles brought forth by the Amnesty Law to carry out judicial investigations.

Academics have shown how amnesties can undercut the legitimacy of an already overburdened judicial system. In this regard, discussions over how this particular law was interpreted focus on how a ‘culture of impunity’ normalised contemporary situations for those in power in Brazil to make farm workers slaves and foster situations that endanger women, shaping how violence is understood in the present.

Brazil is now dealing with some of the consequences of imposing limits on justice for the crimes of the past and the present in the headwinds of authoritarianism.

Current policies, for example, include calls for militarization in the favelas to address crime. This has caused an increase in deaths of young, black males living in the country's poorest neighborhoods. From January to July 2019, the state of Rio alone registered a historic 1,075 deaths caused by police intervention. This has led to an expansion of military justice to shield security forces from prosecution.

As the environment that emboldens acts of violence against Afro-descendants and the urban poor gains strength, extrajudicial executions increase. The most recent example was the case of Evaldo Rosa dos Santos, where army troops fired 257 shots at his car after mistakenly identifying him for being involved in a robbery.

Looking beyond impunity

With parts of the country embattled and others quite literally ablaze, Brazil is now dealing with some of the consequences of imposing limits on justice for the crimes of the past and the present in the headwinds of authoritarianism.

There is a potential glimmer of justice offered by the rape trial of a former military official who committed acts of torture during the dictatorship. It is the first time a criminal rape case is opened for military crimes committed by the military during the dictatorship and could set a precedent against impunity in Brazil.

However, despite the rulings by the Inter-American Court requiring guarantees for justice, Brazil continues to back slide towards violence and impunity. The consequences of the country’s weak judicial checks to these actions are felt not only by the victims of the past but also by potential victims of the future.

Forty years on, we can affirm that the Amnesty Law in Brazil passed in the spirit of rights, citizenship and democracy. But these goals cannot be achieved today without a strong rejection of the misinterpretation that justifies crimes against humanity. Brazil’s judicial system must take all necessary steps in order to ensure the dignity of the victims of the past and prevent atrocities in the present.

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