From Truth Commission to Bolsonaro’s Lies: Attack on Democracy in Three Acts

August 14, 2019

In recent weeks, several affirmations by President Bolsonaro about the repression in the military regime have provoked adverse reactions. By denying and trying to disqualify facts proven by Brazilian state agencies, including the Armed Forces themselves, the president once again made clear his authoritarian facet and his willingness to distort historical events.

It is not mere chatter, but violations of Brazil’s international and constitutional obligations that accompany the destruction of the country’s transitional justice policies  and its goals  of accountability, reparations, promotion of truth and memory and institutional reform. Furthermore, they erode the already weakened foundations of democratic Rule of Law,  by promoting as legitimate crimes against humanity perpetrated by the agents of the military dictatorship.

Read below how Bolsonaro undermines the Brazil’s transitional justice policy.

Three fake news by Bolsonaro: presidential attack on the right to truth and memory

The repression during the military dictatorship was the topic of three recent manifestations:

Ustra:  torturer acclaimed as national hero

In voting for the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, then-Deputy Jair Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to “the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.” Already at the time, the mention caused astonishment and revulsion, as it was an agent of repression, declared as torturer by the Brazilian judiciary, to whom no homages are due in a democratic government. Recently, on August 8, 2019, the now president received the torturer’s widow and reaffirmed his appreciation for the convicted military, calling Ustra “national hero”.

Miriam Leitão: tortured pregnant at the age of 19

On July 19, Bolsonaro claimed that Miriam Leitão was arrested while heading to join the Araguaia Guerrilla and that she lied about being tortured. However, the journalist was arrested in Espirito Santo, on the way to the beach with her then husband, hundreds of kilometers from the Araguaia region. Miriam Leitão was tortured pregnant, placed in a dark room with a jiboia snake. The journalist reported the tortures suffered in a testimony given at the time of the events to the 2nd Air Force Audit, without any consequences for the torturers.

Fernando Santa Cruz: dissapeared after being arrested by repression forces

Bolsonaro said (07/30) “to be able to tell the truth” about the murder of Fernando Santa Cruz. A affirmation sparked immediate reaction, since the president reported that he had information about the unresolved crime and did not share it with the authorities. Later that day, he stated that Fernando Santa Cruz was killed by his fellow militants. However, documents produced by the then Ministry of Aeronautics confirm that Santa Cruz was arrested on February 22, 1974 and was never seen again. One hypothesis, according to the testimony of former deputy Claudio Guerra, is that after being murdered by agents of the Brazilian state, the body of the militant was incinerated in a sugar mill in Campos dos Goytacazes (RJ).

Although these are allegations without any factual basis, they should not be read only as unreasonable speech. The pronouncements may eventually be construed as a liability crime under the terms of Law 1.079/1950. This is because they violate the American Convention on Human Rights and violate a legitimately concluded treaty (crime against the existence of the Union, art. 5, 11, of that law) and are incompatible with the honor and decorum of the office (art. 9, 7).

They also constitute a violation of the right to memory and truth and other obligations assumed by the Brazilian State, both internationally and in the 1988 Constitution. It is in the face of these obligations that commissions promoting reparation, memory and truth were created in Brazil.

Three commissions: Promotion of Historical Truth and Brazil’s International Obligations

In addition to personally attacking the story of people killed, missing and tortured, the president also tried to discredit the role of the National Truth Commission by calling ‘gibberish’  the official documents on military regime deaths and misleadingly suggest that the CNV was illegitimate because its members were appointed during the Dilma administration.

On the naxt day, August 1st, Bolsonaro changed the members of  the Comissão de Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos (Commission of Dead and Missing for Political reasons) , naming military personnel and members of his party. The same intervention took place in March this year in the Comissão de Anistia (Amnesty Commission), when State Minister Damares Alves, increased the number of members from 20 to 27, proposing to review the compensations already granted.

However, what is the difference between these commissions? What are their roles in promoting democracy?

Comissão Especial sobre Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos (Commission of Dead and Missing for Political reasons)

With the transition from dictatorship to democracy, countless relatives of victims of enforced disappearance, whose whereabouts and life or death were uncertain, such as the well-known case of Congressman Marcelo Rubens Paiva, put pressure on the Brazilian state to formally acknowledge state responsibility for the disappearancesand to promote an institutional attempt to locate the remains. The creation of the Comissão Especial sobre Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos (CEMDP) was the first effort in the sense.

Created by Law nº 9.140/1995, CEMDP recognized as dead dozens of missing persons between September 2, 1961, and August 15, 1979 on the basis of participation or accusation of participation in political activities. Thus, it was possible to apply the legal effects associated with death, giving a minimum of closure to the relatives of the victims.

Its activities include: recognizing other missing persons; locate the bodies of missing persons in the event of evidence of hiding or burial; and issue opinions on the compensation claims requested by relatives of the victims.

Comissão de Anistia (Amnesty Commission)

The 1988 Constition established in its article nº 8, of the Transitory Provisions , that amnesty would be granted to persons who were affected by exclusively politically motivated acts of exception in the period from 18 September 1946 to 5 October 1988. The Comissão de Anistia, created by Law nº 10.559/2002, regulates the regime of the political amnesty and enables, among others: the declaration of the condition of political amnesty; the economic reparation, of compensatory character; counting, for all intents and purposes, the time when the receiver of the political amnesty was forced to retire, and the reintegration of civil servants and punished civil servants.

Comissão Nacional da Verdade (National Truth Commission)

The creation of the Comissão Nacional da Verdade is not a result only of civil society preasure, but also of the international judgment of Brazil before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for the lack of investigation and punishment of state agents responsible for the forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions that took place in the Araguaia Guerrilla, a political movement that resisted the regime.

Between 1972 and 1975, the Brazilian Army undertook several missions in the Araguaia River region with the aim of annihilating the political resistance hiding there. The Inter-American Court pointed out that there was a systematic and massive state practice of human rights violations during the period, so that the Brazilian State should have seriously, impartially and effectively investigated, sanctioned and punished those responsible.

Also, the Court stated the Amnesty Law could not hinder the investigation, declaring that the Brazilian Supreme Court’s interpretation of the compatibility of this law with the Brazilian Constitution, declared in April 2010 in the ADPF judgment 153, was mistaken.

According to the Court, the National Truth Commission is “an important mechanism to fulfill the State’s obligation to guarantee the right to know the truth about what happened” and to “contribute to the construction and preservation of historical memory, the clarification of facts and the determination of institutional, social and political responsibilities ”.

Accordingly, in November 2011, Law No. 12,528 was enacted, establishing the CNV with the purpose of investigating and clarifying, not judging, serious human rights violations that occurred from 1946 to 1988. In two and a half years CNV collected 1,121 testimonials; investigated locations, institutions and circumstances related to human rights violations; and reviewed documents, files and other sources of information about the period.

CNV delivered a final report of over 3,000 pages and divided into three volumes. It identified 434 people who were victims of enforced disappearance and execution, and appointed 377 direct or indirect officials as responsible.

Three challenges in promoting the right to memory and truth

The right to memory and truth concerns not only the historical clarification of the circumstances in which serious human rights violations occurred, but also the need to consolidate in the social collective the understanding that they should not occur again. In this sense, this right belongs to the victims of torture, forced disappearances, deaths and their relatives as well as to society as a whole.

Today, the president has not only attacked this rights with words: his affimations are accompanied by the attempt to dismantle the transitional justice policies achieved through the historical struggle of civil society and relatives and victims of violations in the period of dictatorship and which has a permanent state policy character and is not subject to change of government.

In this regard, three challenges stand out for the continuation of the promotion of the right to memory and truth and the fulfillment of international obligations assumed by Brazil:

  1. the fight against the destruction of transition justice policies
  2. publicizing the importance of the National Truth Commission and other commissions in the construction of historical truth about the period of military dictatorship;
  3. the overcoming the understanding that the Amnesty Law embraces crimes against humanity, as done by Argentina and Chile and as determined by the Inter-American Court in the conviction of Brazil for the lack of investigation and punishment of the responsible for the torture and death of Vladimir Herzog, so that the military agents involved in crimes against humanity in the regime are properly held responsible.

The search for truthful information is a necessary effort to hold accountable lying political leaders, who erode democracy. Only through practices that punish – even socially – the adoption of false discourses can we reconstruct spaces of dialogue and avoid deepening polarization.


by Mariana Rezende Oliveira [1], Sophia Pires Bastos [2] e Álvaro Luis Ribeiro Reis [3]

Read more here:

Em meio à polêmica, decreto altera composição da Comissão sobre Mortos e Desaparecidos [PT] –

Como lidar com um presidente que mente? [PT] –

Suspensa a demissão dos peritos do Mecanismo Nacional de Combate à Tortura [PT] –

1 Mestranda do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Direito da UFMG. Bolsista CAPES. Pesquisadora do Centro de Estudos sobre Justiça de Transição (CJT/UFMG).

2 Mestranda do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Direito da UFMG. Bolsista FAPEMIG. Pesquisadora do Centro de Estudos sobre Justiça de Transição (CJT/UFMG). Orientadora da Clínica de Direitos Humanos da UFMG (CdH/UFMG)

3 Graduando em Direito pela UFMG. Pesquisador do CJT/UFMG. Monitor nas disciplinas “Teoria da Constituição” e “Filosofia do Direito”.