Brazil’s Bolsonaro Shuts Down Forensic Investigation of Political Prisoners Likely Murdered During Military Dictatorship

Yesterday I received the following story from a friend in Brazil about a directive issued by President Jair Bolsonaro that shuts down efforts to identify bones found in mass graves of people likely murdered by police and military during the country’s military dictatorship. The news article in Portuguese is at https://odia.ig.com.br/brasil/2019/04/5636034-bolsonaro-encerra-grupo-de-trabalho-que-identificava-ossadas-de-vitimas-da-ditadura-militar.html. Here is a quick translation:

President Jair Bolsonaro closed the Perus Working Group – MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP

São Paulo – President Jair Bolsonaro’s Decree 9.759, which closes councils and commissions, shut down the Perus Working Group responsible for identifying the bodies of disappeared political [activists] in 1,047 boxes of bones from the common grave in Perus cemetery in western Sao Paulo.

The Group was linked to the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and was responsible for completing the identification of victims of political repression during the military dictatorship, a work begun in 2014 after a Federal Court ruling in a public civil action.

When asked, the ministry did not respond how it intends, and if it intends, to continue the work of identifying the bones. The brief noted only that “it is evaluating, studying and proposing something within the parameters of the decree”. During his time in parliament, Bolsonaro criticized searches for the disappeared. He posed beside a poster about the searches in the region of Araguaia that said: “Only a dog looks for bones “.

“More than burying the disappeared, the government is imploding a whole system aimed at justice. The decree affects not only the Perus Group but also the Araguaia Working Group,” said the regional prosecutor Eugenia Gonzaga. She is the chair of the commission, representing the Federal Public Ministry (MPF).

Created by federal law, the commission cannot be affected by the decree, but, according to her, the working groups and technical teams of experts needed to do the work were disbanded by the Bolsonaro decree. “Although there is a projected budget and judicial backing for getting the work done, there is no one today who can sign a document or hire anyone to carry out the work.”

These facts have been conveyed to federal judge Eurico Maiolino, of the Federal Regional Court of the 3rd Region, which ensures compliance with the judicial decision requiring the Union to identify the bones. Currently, four experts still work on the 1,047 cases because their contracts were signed before the decree. The number, however, is insufficient – the group has had 10 experts to analyze the bones.

The Perus grave was discovered in 1990. In the 1970s, police and the military, using false names, buried assassinated political prisoners there. It is suspected that up to 40 of them were in the grave – six of them had already been located there and another seven in unidentified graves in the cemetery.

After being handed over to USP and Unicamp [university] coroners – who were accused of neglecting the identification of the bones – work on the 1,047 boxes began through an agreement signed between the federal government and the City of São Paulo, which also involves the Center for Anthropology and Forensic Archeology (CAAF) at the Federal University of São Paulo.

Already 750 bone samples have been collected – 500 have already been sent to the laboratory of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) – first in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and now in The Hague, Holland. Specialized in DNA analysis of degraded bones, the ICMP laboratory was responsible for the identification of Dimas Casemiro, a militant of the Tiradentes Revolutionary Movement (MRT), and the lawyer Aluísio Palhano, leader of the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard (VPR).

Casemiro died from gunshots and Palhano under torture by men from the 2nd Army Information Operations Detachment (DOI) in 1971 under the command of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. A new shipment of 250 bone samples is going to The Hague in early May – the paperwork on it had already been signed before the Bolsonaro decree. Not yet analyzed is the content of about 30% of the boxes, where bones of more than one individual were detected. “We have to extend the work to analyze the remaining bones,” Eugenia said.

“The decision ending the groups is consistent with the honors that Bolsonaro gives Colonel Ustra. Instead of clarifying the past, this government is interested in glorifying it,” said journalist Ivan Seixas. He was 16 when he was arrested in 1971 by DOI in the company of his father, Joaquim Alencar Seixas. Both were militants of the MRT.

“I saw my father tortured and killed at DOI under Ustra, and I was imprisoned for six years.” Two of Seixas’s companions were in the Perus grave. They are Denis Casemiro, murdered under torture by police officers of the Department of Political and Social Order (DOPS), of the Civil Police of São Paulo, and Dimas Casemiro.

Bolsonaro’s Orwellian Celebration of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

In true Orwellian fashion, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has called upon the country’s military to celebrate the anniversary of the dictatorship it inaugurated against constitutional democracy on March 31, 1964, imposing military rule for over two decades.  Contributing to the air of surreality surrounding Bolsonaro’s idea of “celebration” was the lavish praise Bolsonaro received from Donald Trump in a state visit to the White House a week ago. In spite of (or perhaps because of) Bolsonaro’s outrageous positions on the civil rights of women, homosexuals and blacks, Trump boasted that one of Bolsonaro’s monikers is “the Trump of the tropics”.

There is a deeper, darker historical significance to the Bolsonaro-Trump love fest.  The military rule imposed on Brazil from 1964 to 1985 reflected currents of authoritarianism not only in Brazil but in the United States.  The Brazilian dictatorship would never have lasted and probably would not even have occurred without an American authoritarian foreign policy toward Brazil and many other countries from the 1960s through the 1980s.  A Manichean cold war logic intolerant of the electoral success of leftists or democratic socialists overtook the U.S. State Department, equating it with Soviet-style communism.  Support for dictatorships, provided they were anti-communist, became the norm. In Bolsonaro and Trump these horrifying ghosts from the past have been resurrected.  Vigilance of the highest order is called for in order to assure they do not turn the clock back on self-government.

P.S.  The following blog about the Brazilian and Chilean dictatorships is an excerpt from my recently published essay “A Complexity Theory of Power”.

RELEASE: Rep. Khanna Urges Secretary Pompeo to Uphold Democratic Values in Brazil

The following October 26 letter to sscretary of State Pompeio from Congressman Ro Khanna (Dem-CA) expresses why a victory in Brazil’s presidential election by the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro would, by any democratic standards, be a disastrous outcome. The letter’s hyperlinks document the frightening scope of possibilities a Bolsonaro regime would pose. Now, with his win today, that disaster has occurred.  If Bolsonaro, widely called the Tropical Trump, acts on his demagogic promises, a great political tragedy is in the making.  And Donald Trump, with his authoritarian leanings and a studied aversion to even pronouncing the words “human rights” in foreign policy, is likely to make matters worse.  Now is a time to monitor closely U.S. policy toward Brazil — and to denounce any coddling up to those who seem prepared to dismantle Brazil’s fragile democratic structures.

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Dear Secretary Pompeo,

We are deeply concerned by rising threats to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Brazil. A far-right extremist named Jair Bolsonaro is the leading contender in the country’s presidential election on October 28 and is benefitting from an electoral campaign marked by political violence and a deluge of false news reports and misinformation.

As you may be aware, Mr. Bolsonaro regularly praises Brazil’s former military dictatorship, has been charged with hate speech toward minority groups and said that he will not recognize the election results if he loses. In response, we ask that you make it clear to the government of Brazil that the United States of America finds these positions unacceptable and that there will be severe consequences if Mr. Bolsonaro follows through on his threats during the presidential campaign.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s actions conflict with free and fair elections: Hecalled for the execution of his opponents and more recently threatened to jail leaders of the Worker’s Party and “banish them from the homeland.” He also called for the members of the internationally respected Landless Workers Movement to be branded as “terrorists.” Along with threatening to dismiss the election results, Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo – one of the main spokespeople for his father’s campaign –talks of militarily intervening against the country’s supreme court should it fail to confirm his father’s victory.

It is now widely acknowledged in both the Brazilian and international media that Mr. Bolsonaro has benefited from a massive false news campaign on social media, which has reportedly received millions of dollars of illicit funding from private sector actors. Among other inventions, this campaign has “reported” that Bolsonaro’s opponent defends incest and homo-erotic content in primary school curriculums. It is heartening to see that Facebook hasorganized a “war room” in response to this misinformation campaign and closed accounts responsible for producing and distributing false news reports to millions of Brazilians, but these actions may well be too little, too late at this point.

Finally, it is particularly troubling that political violence, primarily directed at supporters of the Worker’s Party, has erupted over the past few weeks. More than one hundred cases of political violence have been reported. Among the victims is a well-known capoeira master from the state of Bahia, who died from twelve stab wounds after publicly defending the Worker’s Party candidate. Mr. Bolsonaro, himself the victim of a recent stabbing that we strongly condemn, has refused to denounce these attacks and continues to express hatred towards Afro-Brazilians, the indigenous whose protected lands could be opened up to logging and mining if Bolsonaro has his way- and members of the LGBT community. It is chilling to imagine what could happen to these communities that have endured growing discrimination and attacks under a potential future Bolsonaro government.

Mr. Secretary, as you are aware, Brazil only emerged from years of brutal dictatorship in the late 1980s. With a leading presidential candidate who is calling for widespread purges, the militarization of the entire country and who promises to stack his cabinet with military officers, it is not inconceivable that Brazil could return to the dark authoritarian days of its recent past. Given the regional repercussions of this sort of a development, this is not a threat that our country can take lightly. It is incumbent upon you and other spokespeople for our government to condemn all political violence in Brazil and take a strong stand in opposition to such backsliding; leaving clear that U.S. assistance and cooperation with Brazil is contingent on the upholding of basic human rights and democratic values by its leaders.

My colleagues and I look forward to your response and working with you to ensure that liberty, equality and transparency remain firm pillars of U.S. foreign policy toward Brazil. It is imperative to ensure that democracy prevails wherever it is threatened.

Signers of the letter are: Reps. Alma Adams (NC-12), Keith Ellison (MN-5), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-3), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr (GA-4), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), Betty McCollum (MN-4), James P. McGovern (MA-2), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C. At-Large), Frank Pallone Jr. (NJ-6), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Jamie Raskin (MD-8), Bobby L. Rush (IL-1), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), José E. Serrano (NY-15), and Nydia M. Velázquez (NY-7).

The letter is endorsed by: The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Just Foreign Policy, AFL-CIO, Washington Office on Latin America, United Steelworkers, and United Auto Workers (UAW).