CECILIA MARIA BOUçAS COIMBRA

Brazil,

Two decades of military dictatorship in Brazil left a legacy of violence against civil society. That past has not been fully recognized, and aspects of officially-sanctioned violence persist until this day. Cecilia Coimbra, who was held as a political prisoner during the dictatorship, founded Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture No More), an organization that educates the public, provides psychological and medical treatment to victims of urban violence, seeks legal recompense against former torturers, and battles for human rights on behalf of people with no voice in the system.

This profile below was prepared when Cecilia Maria Bouças Coimbra was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.

INTRODUCTION

Two decades of military dictatorship in Brazil left a legacy of violence against civil society. That past has not been fully recognized, and aspects of officially-sanctioned violence persist until this day. Cecilia Coimbra, who was held as a political prisoner during the dictatorship, founded Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture No More), an organization that educates the public, provides psychological and medical treatment to victims of urban violence, seeks legal recompense against former torturers, and battles for human rights on behalf of people with no voice in the system.




THE NEW IDEA

Cecilia Coimbra founded Tortura Nunca Mais to uncover and denounce acts of torture and violence. She is battling the perpetuation of violence and impunity which characterize the relationships of power in Brazil.

Tortura Nunca Mais is the only organization drawing a parallel between the systematic violence of the military regime and the socially- and politically-sanctioned violation of human rights occurring in present-day Brazil. Employing psychology, education, and legal action, Cecilia is working to ensure that Brazil not only remembers the terror its citizens went through but also recognizes how atrocities against today's poorest members of society clearly mirror the dictatorship's human rights violations and reflect a social system that preserves impunity and violence as weapons against its people.




THE PROBLEM

Starting with the coup in 1964, Brazil incorporated the police and fire departments into the military, a policy that is currently still in place. With all strategic force centralized in one governmental apparatus, it is not surprising that military techniques, including torture, have pervaded branches trained to protect and serve civilians.

Strategies to eliminate "enemies of the state" include wiretapping, house searches without warrants, secret informants, and, "disappearing"- kidnapping suspects and holding them for questioning, extracting information through psychological and physical torture. A telling statistic is that as of today, more people have been disappeared from the favelas of Rio than were disappeared during the entire period of the dictatorship.

The Brazilian government declared a general amnesty in 1979 for both political prisoners and their oppressors. Even soldiers and military personnel, jailers, and doctors who can today be identified as torturers are allowed to hold government offices or practice medicine. Moreover, they can receive retirement funds even for the years they participated in the oppression. The benefits of official amnesty have been much easier to obtain for people with political power than for the survivors of the oppression. People who were imprisoned or who fled into exile were promised that the years they were forced to miss would count toward their retirement plans. Retracting this guarantee, a recent decree from President Cardoso declared that these years are no longer valid.

The military dictatorship is now over, and most Brazilians would like to put the past behind them. However, the survivors of torture are still alive, and both they and their children and relatives are still feeling the emotional, physical, and economic effects of the oppressive regime.

The embedded culture of oppression has not subsided, although its focus has shifted. People who live in the favelas and homeless people, the poorest of Brazil's citizens, are now perceived as "the enemy" by the leaders of the country's economic progress. A recent edition of a wealthy neighborhood's newspaper identified the community's top-priority problem as "garbage" and showed a photo of a homeless man. People from low-income brackets and people of color are regularly beaten by police and seized and imprisoned without due process. Their human rights are being violated in ways that parallel the systematized violence of the military dictatorship.

Torture mechanisms have been so well-instilled in the police that they continue to exercise these practices today on people taken to jail, who are considered guilty until proven innocent. One notable example took place in São Paulo within the last few months - police shot at an Afro-brazilian teenager who was running through an upper-class neighborhood, assuming that he was a criminal. The young man was training for a marathon.

Brazilians have become accustomed to hearing gunshots at night, to reading about drug trafficking and gang wars in the newspapers, and even to seeing the police haul homeless people off the streets. This "banalization" of violence is the result of years of over-exposure to their own powerlessness against the system, but it is the direct opposite of an active awareness of their rights as citizens and the possibility of exercising those rights for their personal benefit and for the common good.




THE STRATEGY

In 1985, Cecilia Coimbra formed Tortura Nunca Mais with a group of fellow citizens who were deeply troubled by the fact that most Brazilians wanted to sweep the ugly history of the military dictatorship under the rug. The founders, survivors of torture, children of people murdered during the regime, human rights advocates, started meeting on Monday nights and have continued to meet weekly, without interruption, for the last 14 years. From the beginning the group has refused to align itself with any political party or candidate.

The mission is fourfold:

  1. To educate the public about what really occurred during the military dictatorship in order to prevent it from happening again.
  2. To support survivors and to advocate for the rights of the dead, the disappeared, and their families.
  3. To denounce and remove from government office or medical practice people who have been proven to be former torturers.
  4. To fight for human rights with and on behalf of people who are subjected to systematized violence.

In order to accomplish these goals, Cecilia unites education with action. To educate the public, she has written papers, theses, and articles. She is in constant contact with radio, tv, and print media through the Jounalists' Union, which has also lent its space to Tortura Nunca Mais for meetings. The Memory Project is another way to spread the word. Tortura Nunca Mais is currently scanning 25 books of microfilm containing recovered documents that reveal techniques and data from the dictatorship. This information will be shared via cd-rom with human rights organizations and the public. Cecilia believes that it is important to remind not only citizens but also the government that people have not forgotten what happened and continue to suffer from violent oppression.

To support survivors of urban violence and torture and their families, Cecilia has established a network of thoroughly-screened psychologists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists and doctors who offer treatment for free to clients, paid for by funding from and supervised by Tortura Nunca Mais.

Her campaign of denunciation has been successful with two torturers currently living in São Paulo and three in Rio de Janeiro, although it has also led to her receiving death threats. She requested security protection, which resulted in one car placed outside of the Tortura Nunca Mais center during business hours.

Every year, Tortura Nunca Mais awards the Chico Mendez Prize for Resistance to ten individuals or organizations who have made progress in human rights. This strategy not only rewards and encourages people who serve in a thankless job but also increases exposure and educates the public about the continued need for struggle during an era of perceived peace. The Chico Mendez Prize has gone to the Maryknoll Missionaries, for example, for their efforts to close the School of the Americas.




THE PERSON

Married and the mother of a three year old boy, Cecilia was taken in for questioning and imprisoned for three and a half months, along with her husband. Unlike many female prisoners, Cecilia was not raped, but she reports that she was psychologically and physically tortured and sexually abused, in front of her husband, who was tied up and could not help her. The guards told Cecilia that her son had been taken away and was being held by the state, although in truth he was safe at home with his grandmother.

Eventually released from prison for lack of evidence, Cecilia slowly recovered from her experience and went on to do her masters', doctorate, and post-doctorate in psychology. Her personal mission is to educate people, starting at the university level and reaching into the non-governmental and governmental spheres, about how these issues are not completely closed nor past. Her publications have been found to have a deep educational impact on the understanding of how a thoroughly-oppressive government system can be translated into social and economic violation of human rights.