Brazilian Justice confronts dictatorship’s legacy of torture once again

. Oct 17, 2018
Brilhante Ustra bolsonaro Brazilian Justice confronts dictatorship's legacy of torture once again Brilhante Ustra led sessions of torture in the 1970s

Just days before the second round of the presidential election, Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad’s campaign decided to step up its negative campaign against frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro. Recent ads show Maria Amélia Teles, who was a political prisoner during the years of the military dictatorship, describing the heinous acts of torture perpetrated by the late Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most emblematic figures of the generals’ regime.

Ms. Teles watched a friend tortured to death, but that wasn’t even the worst part of her nearly two-month period under Ustra’s control. One day, she was attached to the so-called “Dragon’s Chair,” a sort of electric chair which the torturers used to jolt shocks into a prisoner’s genitalia, anus, chest, mouth, and ears.

She was naked and bleeding when Col. Ustra brought her young children, four and five years old, to the torture room. “My husband suffered from tuberculosis – after a torture session, he turned green. My daughter asked me why her father was green, and I was blue. I couldn’t even hold them in my arms, as I was tied down. That I won’t forget.”

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Col. Ustra&#8217;s name is the very symbol of torture under Brazil’s authoritarian regime, a time when arbitrary arrests became an everyday affair. From 1970 to 1974, the Colonel was head of the Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations (DOI-CODI), the notorious political police of the dictatorship period. Col. Ustra himself called the torture chambers he ran a &#8220;branch of hell.&#8221; According to the book </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil Never Again</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">, which includes official documents and statements by political prisoners that shed light onto the brutal acts carried out in government facilities, Col. Ustra&#8217;s DOI-CODI was behind 47 kidnappings and 502 disappearances.</span></p> <h2>Legacy of torture under trial</h2> <div id="attachment_9953" style="width: 630px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-9953" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-9953" src="" alt="A São Paulo court tries a lawsuit today concerning the late Colonel Brilhante Ustra, a known torturer celebrated by presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro." width="620" height="396" srcset=" 620w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 620px) 100vw, 620px" /><p id="caption-attachment-9953" class="wp-caption-text">Guilty of torture?</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">His legacy in Brazil, however, has inexplicably become a subject of controversy. Despite the fact that the late Colonel was officially recognized as a torturer, Mr. Bolsonaro and his followers insist on celebrating his memory. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On October 17, just 11 days before the second round vote, a São Paulo court will carry out a trial centered around Col. Ustra. The state court will rule on an appeal by the late colonel, who died in 2015 without ever admitting to &#8211; or paying for &#8211; his crimes, in a lawsuit that forced him to pay redress to the wife and sister of journalist Luiz Eduardo Merlino, who was killed under torture in 1971. Col. Ustra&#8217;s family wants to reverse the sentence.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In a similar 2008 case, a civil court in São Paulo had already ruled in favor of Maria Amelia Teles (who now appears on Workers&#8217; Party ads denouncing the torture she endured). At the time, São Paulo&#8217;s state court upheld the decision, formally declaring the colonel as a torturer for the first time.</span></p> <hr /> <p><strong><em>Update:</em></strong> <em>The court, citing the statute of limitations, dismissed the case, nullifying the previous decision that determined Col. Ustra&#8217;s estate to pay damages to Mr. Merlino&#8217;s family. &#8220;Our Justice system</em> <em>tolerates torture and contributes to the continuation of his violence cycle,&#8221; said Ângela Mendes, the journalist&#8217;s widow</em>.</p> <hr /> <h2>Convicted, but not punished</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Back in 1979, when the military dictatorship was promoting a &#8220;slow and steady&#8221; process of re-democratization in the country, the government passed the Amnesty Law, stating that no one could be punished for crimes committed during the authoritarian rule. That&#8217;s why men like Col. Ustra can only be convicted in civil trials, with no penal consequences.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">A few years ago, torturers were also forced by human rights activists to be publicly shamed and exposed to their neighbors. These groups would hold peaceful protests in front of their houses, publicly shouting out their crimes against humanity. Besides torturers, the protests also took aim at doctors who defrauded autopsy exams in order to mask the real reasons of deaths of prisoners of the state.

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Laura Quirin

Laura Quirin’s expertise lies in business development in emerging markets. After a six-year stint in China, where she studied and represented French companies, she now lives in São Paulo. As the founder, Laura develops The Brazilian Report’s strategy. She holds a joint MBA from Université Lille II in France and Fudan University in Shanghai.

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