Discovery of mass grave in Brazil revives questions on military rule

November 25, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Dozens of government medical examiners are facing uncomfortable new nationwide scrutiny, accused by human rights activists of falsifying autopsy reports to cover up torture and murder by Brazil's secret police during two decades of military rule.

One medical examiner has lost his job, others have had their offices invaded by angry activists, and dozens have come under public censure since municipal authorities here last month opened a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of several dozen murdered government opponents in an attempt to clarify the fate of the city's "disappeared."

The dramatic exhumation of the trench grave in a village cemetery 20 miles north of Sao Paulo, where murdered political prisoners appear to have been buried along with hundreds of indigents, attracted scores of journalists and stimulated comparisons with similar excavations under way in Argentina and Chile.

Yet Sergio Paulo Pinheiro, the coordinator of Sao Paulo's Center for the Study of Violence, noted in an interview that the political legacy of military dictatorship was different in Brazil.

"Most of Brazilian society doesn't give a damn about human rights," Mr. Pinheiro said. "In Argentina and Chile, demands for rights investigations became a national phenomenon. But here almost no one cares."

Why? Mainly because repression here never reached the levels of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where tens of thousands of government opponents were exterminated, Mr. Pinheiro said. In Brazil, some 150 dissidents disappeared and about 200 were murdered during successive military governments between a 1964 coup and the 1985 return to civilian government, he said.

But amid the apathy one recent discovery has aroused considerable controversy: Scores of government physicians who collaborated with Brazil's torturers continue in their government posts.

After exhumations during the 1980s at the Dom Bosco cemetery north of Sao Paulo produced the remains of several political dissidents executed by police, an organization of relatives of the "disappeared" concluded that the cemetery had after its 1971 inauguration become the military government's principal dumping ground in Sao Paulo for the bodies of torture victims.

In September, on orders of Sao Paulo's Marxist mayor, Luiza Erundina, authorities exhumed a trench holding an estimated 1,500 skeletons. Most are the remains of indigents, but as many as 50 may be government opponents who were "disappeared."

The mass exhumation led investigators into immediate conflict with Jose Antonio de Mello, the head of Sao Paulo's Medical Legal Institute, the local forensic agency. Rights activists had distrusted Dr. de Mello since 1976, when he had signed an autopsy certifying that a metalworker who died in police custody -- and whose body bore signs of torture -- had committed suicide in his cell by hanging himself with his socks.

As the head of the forensic institute, Dr. de Mello was to be responsible for overseeing the mass exhumation at the Dom Bosco cemetery.

"That was like entrusting the fox with the chicken coop," said Ivan Seixas, a leader of a Sao Paulo organization, Relatives of the Disappeared.

Under pressure from rights activists, the state governor removed the Dom Bosco exhumation from Dr. de Mello's control, entrusting it instead to the head of the forensic faculty at the nearby University of Campinas.

But Dr. de Mello remained in control of the government's forensic archives; rights activists began demanding them.

First, Dr. de Mello said he had no idea where the records were kept.

Then, in a second tense confrontation at his office, Sao Paulo's beleaguered chief medical examiner barricaded himself inside his locked office.

At that, higher authorities intervened, taking the Institute's records out of Dr. de Mello's control and turning them over to investigators. Immediately discovered amid the heaps of documents were the photographs of the bodies of numerous missing political prisoners -- many of whose files were differentiated by a red "T," apparently meaning "terrorist."

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