Accessibility links

Breaking News

Brazil's Former Secret Police Headquarters Transformed Into Archives - 2001-12-12

Like other Latin American democracies, Brazil is coming to terms with decades in which political prisoners faced torture, execution, and exile.

The transformation of Rio de Janeiro's infamous secret police headquarters into a new public archive symbolizes Brazilians' curiosity and openness about the recent past. But human rights experts say the continued use of torture by police is one alarming legacy of military dictatorship that remains intact.

Rio de Janeiro's old secret police headquarters has held prisoners under two different dictatorships. The first under President Getulio Vargas in the 1930's and 40's, and again under the military regime of the 60's and 70's.

The once elegant turn-of-the-century building has acquired a sinister look in line with its history. But the building's decay and its forbidding image are both about to change. Next year it will become home to Rio de Janeiro's state archive, and its police records will be open to academics and the public.

Archive director Jesse Jane Vieira de Sousa says the transformation will be dramatic. Speaking through an interpreter, she said, "It is the transfiguration of that space, a space that was about the denial of human rights will become a place in support of those rights."

The symbolism has not been lost on the state police, who strongly resisted the transfer of the vacant building to the archive department.

Police not only moved some of their offices back into the abandoned building in hopes of hanging onto it, they even announced plans to open their own museum there as an alternative.

The archive plan prevailed, but Ms. Souza says she was not surprised the police put up a fight.

"Our project is involved in a much larger political struggle about memory in Brazil - the struggle between the memory of the powerful and the memory of the citizen. The resistance that the police have shown toward this project is a product of this," Ms. Souza says.

She spent nine years in prison under the military dictatorship for being a member of an armed resistance group.

The public is also re-examining the building's history through a new on site theater production. The play is staged in the prison cells the actors found intact, and recreates harrowing scenes of torture and interrogation.

The play, called "Remember and Resist", draws on the accounts of political prisoners under the military dictatorship, to illustrate the government's repression of students, intellectuals, union leaders, and anyone suspected of Communist sympathies.

The play's director Nelson Xavier says the police headquarters suggests a larger history of human rights abuses in Brazil that continues to repeat itself.

"A lot of people say that this repressive military apparatus that encourages torture remained intact since the 1930's, and became active again during the military regime. And some say that this system is still active, because torture is still practiced in Brazil in police stations and prisons," Xavier says through an interpreter.

Human rights groups say torture techniques are still practiced by some of the same police officials who used them under the dictatorship. The difference is in the targets: criminal suspects and convicts now face torture as a means of forcing confessions or maintaining discipline.

Investigations by the United Nations and the human rights group Amnesty International show widespread and systematic use of torture. Amnesty investigator Tim Cahill says this is a direct legacy from the military dictatorship.

"These people are still using methods like electroshock treatment, the parrot's perch, where they hang prisoners tied by their hands and feet from the ceiling and beat them. These kind of very specific processes continue, and then at the same time you have a problem in Brazil where you have extreme levels of urban crime and a demand on police to deal with it in any way possible," Mr. Cahill said.

And high crime rates mean there is little public sympathy for the rights of accused criminals. While Brazil's Justice Minister called Amnesty's recent report on torture "exaggerated," the government admits problems exist, and recently unveiled an anonymous hotline for people to call with complaints of police torture or brutality.

The Rio de Janeiro Secretary of Human Rights and Prisons, Joao Luis Pinaud, says he has tried to improve prison conditions through work and education programs for prisoners. But he says people often equate caring about human rights with being a friend to criminals.

"I think we still see a culture of brutality - a brutal mentality. There is still the misconception that you need to use violence to maintain discipline in a prison. So that is what we are trying to change," Mr. Pinaud says.

Brazil passed an anti-torture law in 1997 which human rights activists call a model piece of legislation. The challenge, they say, is getting the law enforced, and getting the openness and understanding of national politicians to trickle down to the precincts and prisons where torture occurs.