I had the honor of attending a public session of Brazil’s Amnesty Commission recently. The Commission was sitting that week in Porto Alegre, where I participated in a conference entitled Limites e Possibilidades da Justiça de Transição: Impunidade, Direitos e Democracia (Limits and Possibilities of Transitional Justice: Impunity, Rights, and Democracy), held April 13 at the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul.
A little-known transitional justice mechanism, Brazil's Amnesty Commission has some interesting characteristics:
►It was formed to deal with a wide range of violations: Brazil suffered relatively few deaths (some 400) during the years of military dictatorship – defined as 1961-79 – but extensive political repression including torture and detention, exile, loss of jobs and blacklisting. It combines some truth-telling with a grant of reparations.
► Amnesty was a fundamental demand of civil society during the transition from the military to a civilian government. Amnesty here is used in the same sense as in Amnesty International – removing the civil and criminal disabilities of regime opponents. There’s a whole other fight in Brazil about the other meaning of amnesty – that which protects the military from prosecution for crimes committed during the dictatorship. More on that below.
In 2002, the government created the Commission, which is officially part of the Ministry of Justice. It’s been holding hearings around the country and providing reparations for the harms committed by the dictatorship.
The hearing I saw involved 6 cases. The 15 Commissioners, about half academics and half social activists, sat on the stage. The national anthem was sung. The first case involved a woman who had been forced into exile with her husband for their political activities. One of the Commissioners, acting as rapporteur, summarized her file, waxing eloquent on the harms she suffered and detailing the proof she had provided to the Commission. Apparently, the case had been denied once before for lack of adequate documentation. This time, the Commissioner recommended amnesty. The amnesty seeker then was given up to ten minutes to address the session, which she did, thanking everyone and recounting some of the political activism that preceded her family’s flight from Brazil. Finally, each of the Commissioners voted on whether to accept the rapporteur’s recommendation, and then everyone stood while the president of the Commission officially pronounced her an amnestiado politico, asked for pardon in name of the Brazilian state for forcing her into exile and changing her life’s plan, and awarded her a lump sum payment. She got a hug and a flower from a member of the Commission’s staff, and everyone applauded.
A similar procedure followed for the rest of the cases.
In one, a former student leader who had been stripped of his Brazilian citizenship because of his activism had it reinstated, along with a sum of money and an apology (The Commission can obtain benefits for victims from other state agencies, and has read its mandate to do so); he had flown in from the US especially for the ceremony.
The most famous case was that of former Brazilian President João Goulart’s grandson, who offered a political speech and received reparations for having been forced as a child to move from one country to another, in fear, after his grandfather was overthrown. While the Commissioner’s recognized the existence of inter-generational trauma, they were quick to note that just being the grandchild of a political exile or prisoner was not enough to qualify for amnesty.
The most interesting case, for me, was of a former state bank workers’ union leader who had been forced out of his job in the wake of a strike and then blacklisted.
He wanted reinstatement of his job, even though it was thirty years later. The Commission deliberated, in public, on what the appropriate remedy should be, including back pay or a pension; they settled on reinstatement “with all the privileges attendant thereon,” thus leaving it up to the bank to decide what to do about any further payments. The public discussion lent the proceedings a bit of a game-show air, but also showed a departure from the highly scripted theater of the other cases.
The solemnity, the public apology, the ability to speak without the need to replay the traumatic events of the past (summarized by the Commissioner in each case), gave the proceedings weight and reparative force. However, the Commission is hamstrung by laws that provide lifetime pensions for those who lost their jobs as a result of their political activities, or their heirs, but only a modest lump sum to those who were students, housewives or unemployed. Thus, some awards total almost a million dollars, while others, on equal or more compelling facts, are much smaller. And many of the awards go to relatively well-off people, creating resentment.
The Amnesty Commission also has educational reform and memorialization projects around the country. It’s unclear how it will mesh with a newly approved Truth Commission, although everyone talks about the need for close cooperation. Nor is it clear what would happen to the Commission if the amnesty law, which covers security forces as well as former prisoners and regime opponents, were to be annulled or reinterpreted. So far, efforts to overturn the amnesty for security forces who committed international crimes have been unsuccessful, despite a 2010 ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Gomes-Lund et al. (Guerrilha do Araguaia) v. Brazil, that found the law as applied incompatible with Brazil’s treaty obligations.