military courts

Image: João Nitsche


During the dictatorship some military courts did not support the worst anti-democratic facets and human rights violations

Military audits, in the period 1964-1985, acted as exceptional courts, almost always in direct collaboration with the so-called “basements” of the dictatorship. The Superior Military Court somewhat deviated from this rule for a spurious reason. Several of the generals, brigadiers or admirals who were part of the STM were sent there as a “punishment”, for not fitting in with the dictates of the dictators at any given time. They were not opponents of the regime, far from it! They just didn't support the worst anti-democratic facets and human rights violations perpetrated by the various echelons of the regime. As they were names respected by the troop or by their peers, they were not sent home wearing pajamas and were given a “backrest” at the STM. Even so, some ended up being sidelined for opposing the principals. I had some interesting experiences with several of these “legal” instances, which I will now report.

In my first lawsuit I was accused of burning an army vehicle in a street demonstration in June 1968. There were four of us accused, all arrested on a bus in Praia do Flamengo when we were returning from the demonstration. The car was burned on the corner of Rua Buenos Aires and Rua Uruguaiana and the distance between the event and the place where our arrest took place allowed our lawyers to ask for the arrest to be stopped and our release to await the trial in freedom .

The commanding general of the first army, based in Rio de Janeiro, Sizeno Sarmento, spoke out against this measure in public and pressured the STM to reject it. The general stated that I was “the most dangerous of subversives” and that I could not be released. According to him, I “manipulated” the most prominent leaders, Wladimir and Travassos. Pure delirium or a desire to value the prey they had in their hands. For two weeks massive student demonstrations took place across the country, calling for my release and that of other arrested students. To the surprise of many, myself included, the STM accepted the arguments of the lawyers (or gave in to the pressure of the masses), broke the flag and freed us, after about 25 days of cane.

At that time, our best defenders in the STM were generals Mourão Filho and Peri Bevilaqua. Those were still times of relative respect for the terms of the new “legality” that arbitrarily replaced the one violated by themselves after the coup. In June 5, this same court, with a slightly modified composition after the AI-1970, when the two generals mentioned above were dismissed, judged the appeal against my conviction in the case of the burning of the vehicle, in the first audit of Guerra (Army).

Both my lawyers, Paulo Goldracht and Evaristo de Morais, and my parents were sure that I would be acquitted in the second instance because my case was “a legal absurdity”. When the two visited me on Ilha das Flores to address the matter, I reminded them that they had said the same thing on the eve of my first trial, which I did not attend to “go underground”. According to them, the situation was now different because it was the MTS. In addition, I would remain in prison on charges in three other cases, and therefore they could afford to comply with the law.

It is good to remember that the National Security Law had been arbitrarily modified shortly after AI-5. The curious thing is that the previous law, from 1967, by which I was being tried, was tougher for the “crimes” of which I was accused than for armed actions. When it was decreed, armed resistance to the regime had not yet begun and the military was concerned about the mass organizations that fought them, such as the UNE that I chaired. Participating in demonstrations, belonging to the UNE or other peaceful opposition activities were punished with a maximum of 5 years, while sentences for armed acts were a maximum of 3 years.

The lawyers' arguments were reasonable, but I reasoned in political terms and knew that the “vehicle case” had been used extensively in agendas to incite soldiers and officers against students. I had become a symbol and they weren't going to take it back.

My mother's account of what happened at the STM is a good sign of those times. Upon arrival, Evaristo spoke with the rapporteur of the process and he said that the case was simple and he was going to vote for acquittal and he was sure that almost all the officers would follow him. Everyone began to watch the trial in an atmosphere of celebration and relaxation when a uniformed officer entered the courtroom and ostensibly addressed the general presiding over the court to deliver a message. Strangely, it opened the message right away, with the section in progress, and then suspended it.

The ministers withdrew, clearly confused and surprised, and spent almost an hour in a closed meeting. All present, anguished, discussed what was going on, suspecting some negative intervention. When they returned, the ministers were between heads down and frowning, not saying a word. The president reopened the section without explanation and immediately turned the floor over to the rapporteur on my appeal, the only non-military person on the court. As described to me, he looked at Evaristo and made a slight negative gesture with his head, opened the folder where his report was, leafed through it briefly and ostensibly closed it to say only: “according to the records, I ask for maintenance of conviction and sentence”. Or something like that.

Before there was any reaction from the appalled public, the chairman put the proposal to a vote and declared the session closed. All the ministers withdrew without a word. My parents learned from Evaristo that an order had arrived from President Médici demanding that the sentence be upheld and that, despite the embarrassment of several officials, it was agreed that the president's demand had to be accepted.

Already in the first instance, when my process was judged in the audit of Guerra, it was still September 68 and the formalities were respected by the court. In this process, one of the accused, Pedro Lins, had not even participated in the march. He was arrested for taking the same bus as me and sitting next to me, as we were old acquaintances from San Fernando High School.

Baianinho, a Calabouço militant, was in my safety and we both arrived at the place where the car was burned at the moment it was being overturned by the enraged crowd. We (Baianinho and I) tried to stop them from setting fire to the gasoline that was flowing from the overturned car, afraid that it would explode and hurt the crowd around us. The only one of the four who was there at the time of the turning point was Carlinhos, a member of Popular Action in the engineering course.

Our lawyers obtained a film from Continental TV that recorded the process of overturning and burning the vehicle. In the entire film, only Carlinhos appeared, although he tried, like Baianinho and I, to prevent the burning. The film would (theoretically) free 3 of the 4 defendants, but we prefer it not be used. On the other hand, two PCBR militants, Fernando Sandália, from the Economy and another whose name escapes me, came to me to say that they had burned the car. I knew very well that Sandália had been one of those who threw matches in the gasoline, because I grabbed his arm trying to stop him. They were thinking of taking responsibility, but I quickly declared that I didn't accept that. In fact, this confession would only serve to convict two more and not save the four. I was convinced that we would all be condemned and the reasons were political not legal.

On the eve of the trial, we had a meeting at the apartment of Carlinhos's family, whose father was a colonel who had been impeached by the dictatorship and a party member. All family members met there, except for Baianinho, who also did not attend. Our lawyers maintained that we should attend the trial and that our acquittal was "absolutely safe". I remember Evaristo, Goldracht, Sussekind, and another medallion whose name I forget.

Before joining the meeting I had telephoned Modesto da Silveira, the most experienced of all lawyers for political prisoners, and he supported my position not to appear in court. According to him, it could be that Pedro, Baianinho and Carlinhos would be acquitted, although he thought this unlikely, but that I would leave there for jail without any doubt. This was due to my role in the student movement, the symbolic exploitation of the case by the military and my already publicized candidacy on the UNE ticket (I was not yet a presidential candidate).

Carlinhos and Pedro were present at the trial. Baianinho disappeared until he appeared in exile in Portugal in the second half of the 1970s. I was already in São Paulo, clandestine and preparing for the UNE congress in Ibiúna. The court sentenced everyone to two years in prison, but only Pedro was arrested. As the judges were discussing the sentence in a separate room, Bia da Arquitetura, a member of Ação Popular, entered the room and discreetly removed Carlinhos, preventing him from being arrested. He went underground and fought until the amnesty, escaping arrest both when he was in Ação Popular and when he joined the PCdoB.

In June 1970, I again dealt with an audit, the second by the Air Force, where the Popular Action process was judged. We were 12 accused, if I'm not mistaken. At least we were 12 accused who were arrested. I decided to prepare myself to use the trial, which was open to the public, to denounce the dictatorship and torture. I studied the Code of Military Criminal Procedure with Rodrigo Faria Lima, a militant lawyer for the PCBR with whom I shared a cell for a while. On the other hand, I asked my parents to invite the Swiss consul (I am a Swiss citizen, on my father's side) and the correspondent of Le Monde and other journalists to watch.

On the eve of my testimony in court, the commander of the marine battalion based on Ilha das Flores called me into his office where a plainclothes officer was present who told me that my mother was being investigated for “spreading lies about the regime” abroad. I didn't know any of this and the officer said that my mother's situation could get worse if I did “something silly” the next day. I spent a sleepless night worrying and thinking about what to do. The blackmail was evident, but if I gave in at that moment they could use the same “argument” to pressure me again.

I asked my mother when I got to court if that was true and she confirmed it. She had withheld the information so as not to worry me. She said the allegations were vague and there had been no formal complaints. The frame had been set up to put pressure on me and it was (still) not a real danger. I decided that the best defense would be offense.

While we were waiting for the work to begin, I was introduced to the Swiss consul and asked that his presence be announced to the robed judge who presided over the court, which also consisted of 4 military personnel. He did, and this generated an immediate reaction from the judges, who withdrew to confer. It took so long that I believe they were consulting higher authorities to find out what to do. Also present, but not introduced to the judges, were both the correspondent of the Le Monde as a journalist United Press International, in addition to several others from the national press. The stage was set for the show.

When the judges returned, the robe, whom we nicknamed “Gato Magro” and whose name escapes me, made a long speech about democracy and justice in Switzerland, even provoking a discreet laugh in the public.

In my interrogation, the behavior of the judge (who had truculently prevented any “political” statements from all the other deponents in our process) was one of strict adherence to the terms of the CPPM that I had studied in the cells on Ilha das Flores. I discussed the terms of the code with the judge the entire time to the point where he, exasperated, ordered me to dictate my statement directly to the clerk. I gave a long speech denouncing the dictatorship, its educational and research policy, the denationalization of the chemical industry and defending the student movement and the UNE.

I left the denunciation of torture until the end. When the judge asked me, at the end, if I was testifying of my own free will, I replied loud and clear that I had been tortured for 7 days by CENIMAR and… I was interrupted by Gato Magro's screams telling me to shut up. I continued giving the names of the torturers, in particular Inspector Solimar and the Frigate Captain, Alfredo Eric de Oliveira. The judge ordered the room to be evacuated and a riot broke out that required armed soldiers to enter the room. Alone with the court, Gato Magro reopened the section and ordered the clerk to erase my last statements.

I kept insisting on the complaint and, to my surprise, the judge shouted: “you are under arrest!” I replied that “yes, there is almost a year without trial!”. “You're under arrest again,” he insisted. "Like this? Am I going to be in a cell within a cell?” “Get him out of here!”. And I was taken to another room next door. After half an hour, the brigadier who presided over the section came to interrogate me to open a new case against me, for contempt of authority. He had a list of formal questions that Gato Magro had given him and he went through them and asked the clerk to write down the answers. Soon he got confused by my considerations and kept leaving the room to ask for help.

At the end he asked if I wanted to name witnesses in my favor and I pointed out the Swiss consul and the UPI correspondent. The process was never installed, but with this confusion, Gato Magro was unable to judge us and another judge, much less truculent, replaced him. Those who testified after me cannot make speeches against the dictatorship, but they can denounce torture without restriction. Strange times!

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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