15 July 2020 marked 35 years of the launch of “Brasil: Nunca Mais” (‘Brazil: Never Again’, in English) a book in which episodes of torture under the military dictatorship in Brazil between 1964 and 1979 are documented.
The “Brasil: Nunca Mais” project was developed by the World Council of Churches, under the auspices of its staff member Charles R. Harper, and the Archdiocese of São Paulo in the 1980s and was coordinated by Rev. Jaime Wright and Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns, with active support by Rabbi Henry Sobel. The initiative had three principal objectives: to avoid the destruction of judicial proceedings of political trials at the end of the military dictatorship; to obtain information about torture practiced by the state’s repressive apparatus; and to disseminate that information so that it would have an educational role in Brazilian society.
After examining almost 850,000 pages of legal proceedings involving political prisoners, the researchers produced reports and edited a book of the same name describing torture practices and other gross human rights violations that occurred during the Brazilian military dictatorship. This information was obtained from the testimony given by defendants in military courts. When interrogated in court, some of those accused denounced and detailed the practices of physical and moral violence they suffered or witnessed in the periods they were detained in prisons of the Armed Forces or the Political Police.
One of the ingenious ideas of the project was to use official state documents to prove the repeated and institutionalized practice of torture that was used in interrogations and repression during the dictatorship.
On July 1985, four months after the restoration of civilian rule, the book “Brasil: Nunca Mais” was released. Its publication was featured in the national and international press, and the book, which has already surpassed its 40th edition, remained on the list of the top ten bestsellers for 91 consecutive weeks.
Fearing that the institutions of political repression might destroy this research material, the WCC kept copies in its archives in Geneva and sent microfilmed copies of all of the documentation to the United States where they were stored in Chicago by the Latin American Microform Project, which is part of the Center for Research Libraries (CRL).
Many years later, in 2010, as I was working as assistant to the moderator of the WCC Central Committee, Rev. Dr Walter Altmann, regional prosecutor Dr Marlon Weichert made contact with the WCC and presented the concept of the process of digitalization of all the documents, and we started to work closely together with him and the CRL in arranging the repatriation of records which include evidence that had gone missing from files held by the Supreme Military Court of Brazil.
On June 2011, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit and Rev. Dr Walter Altmann were accompanied by several local and regional church leaders in São Paulo when they delivered to Brazil’s public prosecutors three archival cases containing copies of the “Brasil Nunca Mais” project.
I was there, and I saw how full the auditorium of the Public Prosecution Office was and how massive the media coverage was on that day. But the most remarkable aspect of that ceremony for me was the feeling of mutual accountability and hope in the air.
Nina, the granddaughter of Charles R. Harper received an enthusiastic ovation on his behalf, a gesture of gratitude for his tireless work as WCC coordinator for human rights in Latin America from (1973 – 1992).
As part of the coverage of the event, I did quick interviews with some speakers, but it was Altmann and Tveit’s words that better summarized the meaning of what had just happened for the WCC.
“This is an important mark for the Brazilian people and nation, and I am proud of the role the WCC played and continues to play,” said Altmann. Tveit added that the occasion had exceeded his expectations: “It showed the value of what we keep in our archives, but also that it is essential to work together. In reviewing this history and the reality of what happened, we see more clearly the role of the ecumenical movement in this particular issue, offering support to people and churches and providing a framework for effective action.”
Most of us would reunite in that same auditorium on August 2013, when the “Brasil Nunca Mais Digit@l” website was launched, providing free access to more than 900,000 pages of official records related to the project. The highlight of the ceremony was when the website was officially launched with a click by Sonia Wright, daughter of Rev. Jaime Wright.
The whole process of repatriation of the documents, the digitalization and all that was involved in this second phase of the project, together with the events in 2011 and 2013 seemed to mark a new period in Brazil’s search for reconciliation after these tumultuous times. The “never again” almost seemed like a reality that would just be a matter of time until it would be part of Brazil’s history.
Time went by and many things changed since. Although Brazil's modern military was molded by the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and would not likely support any effort to shut down congress or the courts, the vast collection of anti-democratic statements and acts proffered by President Jair Bolsonaro himself and his entourage during this turbulent first half of his mandate often raise great concern among those who fought hard to advocate for democracy, and for the unconditional protection of human dignity and participation of all, especially the poor, in the country’s destiny.
In this context, the remembrance of the 35 years of the launch of the first edition of the “Brasil Nunca Mais" book acquires a new, prophetic meaning. Maybe some stories are to be told over and over so that we all know that they should never happen again.