BRASILIA, Brazil – A Brazilian federal judge has agreed to hold the first trial for alleged crimes by the South American nation's long dictatorship, taking a case charging two former military men of kidnapping leftist opponents of the regime, prosecutors said Friday.
Judge Nair Pimenta de Castro in the Amazon state of Para accepted prosecutors' arguments that because the bodies of victims were never recovered, their kidnapping cases remain open and therefore are not subject to a blanket amnesty law adopted in 1979.
Prosecutors accuse retired army reserve Col. Sebastiao de Moura and retired army reserve Maj. Licio Maciel of kidnappings during the repression of the leftist Araguaia guerrilla movement.
The rural Communist group was crushed by government forces between 1972 and 1975, a period during which 62 of its members were "disappeared."
"This is a great achievement that comes after a 40-year struggle to assert human rights in Brazil," said Victoria Grabois, head of the Rio de Janeiro-based activist group Torture Never Again.
It was not clear if Moura or Maciel have legal representation and it was not possible to contact them.
The judge's decision comes amid a debate in Brazil about a truth commission that was recently established and has begun to investigate crimes committed under the dictatorship.
President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla, was imprisoned for more than three years and tortured during the junta's rule. Last November, she signed into law a bill that established the truth commission. The commission faced resistance from conservative corners in Latin America's largest nation — more than 400 retired military personnel signed documents sharply criticizing it.
The commission will have subpoena power, can demand any document it wants from the government and can put witnesses under oath.
But its recommendations are unlikely to result in any prosecutions as long as the amnesty law remains intact. Unlike Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, which also had repressive military regimes, Brazil has never punished military officials accused of human rights abuses.
That is why prosecutors and rights groups say Castro's decision to take the case is so important, even though any decision is likely to be appealed.
Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law, said the case marks "a turning point in Brazil's official tolerance for abuses carried out during its dictatorship."
"Brazil is a country that has been delayed in the process of establishing truth and justice for the crimes committed during the dictatorship," she said. "There were systematic crimes, tortures and disappearances that, although not as numerous as in other countries in the region, were significant."
A study by the Brazilian government concluded last year that 475 people were killed or "disappeared" by agents of the military regime, which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 — far less than in neighboring Argentina or Chile.
In 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Brazilian government responsible for the forced disappearances of the 62 alleged members of the Araguaia guerrilla movement, which sparked federal prosecutors in the nation to find new ways to put the accused on trial.
Prosecutors argue the kidnappings and the hiding of bodies so the victims were never found are "permanent crimes." Since such crimes continue to the present, they fall outside the 1961-79 period covered by the amnesty law, federal prosecutors argue.
Still, previous rulings raised doubts about the chances of any prosecution standing in the kidnapping case.
In 2010, a 7-2 decision in the Supreme Court rejected a motion to modify the Amnesty Law so that officials accused of human-rights abuses under Brazil's military regime would have to stand trial. Most justices said the law should remain since it was approved by society as a whole, including the bar association, armed forces and political exiles.
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.