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Nunca Mais: Human Rights Evidence Rediscovered

James T. Simon
Director of International Resources, Center for Research Libraries


The following article was drawn from statements and presentations commemorating the launch of the Brasil: Nunca Mais Digital website and from project documentation.

In June 2011, the Center for Research Libraries and LAMP announced a major partnership effort with the Ministério Público Federal in Brazil to digitize nearly one million pages of the collection Brasil: Nunca Mais, which contains court documents (processos) from Brazil’s Military Supreme Court. These proceedings document the cases of more than 7,000 persons arrested, convicted, and/or executed by the Court between 1964 and 1979.

Project History

In 1979, a group of religious officials and lawyers began an extremely ambitious project: to access records of the Superior Tribunal Militar (STM) containing information and evidence of human rights violations committed by agents of the repressive apparatus of the state during the military dictatorship (then still in power). The project aimed to avoid possible loss of the documents due to destruction during the country’s democratization process. The parties involved in the effort—including lawyers involved in the defense of political prisoners—viewed the preservation of these records as essential for future study on this phase of Brazil’s history.

The project’s founders realized that the processos could be accessed and taken off site for reproduction, taking advantage of a 24-hour period permitted by the Court to remand the cases. Reverend James Wright of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil and Cardinal Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of São Paulo, volunteered to coordinate the activities from São Paulo. The organizers requested and obtained financial resources from Philip Potter, the secretary general of the World Council of Churches, with the assistance of Charles Roy Harper, pastor and member of that entity.

In early 1980, Wright and his colleagues rented a room near the Court and leased three Xerox machines to copy the processos as they were delivered by lawyers sent to withdraw each case. They sent the copies to Sao Paulo, first in night buses, and later by car or airliners. During the course of the project, the organizers became increasingly concerned over the possible seizure of the material. They decided to microfilm the copied pages of all court records and send them abroad for safekeeping.

Superior Tribunal Military document, 1970. From the Brasil: Nunca Mais collection, which contains one million pages from the cases of more than 7,000 persons arrested, convicted, and/or executed by Brazil’s Military Supreme Court between 1964 and 1979. Copied in secrecy, the official records document human rights violations by the military government in Brazil during this period.

After nearly six years of working in secrecy, the organizers completed the task. Reproduction of the 707 lawsuits consulted totaled about one million copies on paper and 543 rolls of microfilm. The project team also created a 12-volume index called Projeto A to provide organizational access to the contents. Projeto A contained, among other data: (i) how many prisoners passed through the military courts, (ii) how many were formally charged, (iii) how many were arrested, (iv) how many people reported having been tortured, (v ) how many people disappeared, (vi) what methods of torture were practiced, and (vii) where prisoners were detained. Additional information contained names of doctors and employees, as identified by political prisoners.

Considering the difficulty of reading and even handling this material, Dom Paulo commissioned Projeto B, a volume summarizing the major components of Project A in a space 95 percent smaller. Journalists Ricardo Kotscho and Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo (Betto) were selected to undertake the task, coordinated by Paulo de Tarso Vannuchi. Editora Vozes (linked to the Catholic Church) agreed to publish the book, naming it Brasil: Nunca Mais (Never Again). In fear of possible censure, the organizers also found an overseas publisher; Random House released the work under the title Torture in Brazil.

On July 15, 1985, four months after the resumption of the country’s democratic rule, Brazil: Never Again was published. The national and international press highlighted the publication, which was reprinted 20 times in its first two years, reaching a 37th edition in 2009.

Dom Paulo decided to donate the original project documentation to an institution to make it public. The State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) accepted the documentation, with the promise that the material would be made widely available for consultation and reproduction. Both the complete copies of the 707 cases (about one million pages), and annexes containing about 10,000 documents (“arquivo de material apreendido”) were transferred to the “Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth” at UNICAMP.

The original 543 rolls of microfilm with the full contents of the cases were sent to the Latin American Microform Project (LAMP) at the Center for Research Libraries. LAMP became interested in the Brasil: Nunca Mais project in 1987, when Lygia Ballantine, director of the Library of Congress field office in Rio de Janeiro, reported to LAMP on the project and the status of the microfilm, which at the time was in the possession of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Europe. In June 1987, LAMP chair Laura Gutierrez-Witt (University of Texas at Austin) proposed to Wright that the collection come to LAMP, where it would be widely accessible to researchers from academic and research institutions throughout North America. Wright immediately accepted this proposal, and the collection was transferred to the Center for Research Libraries in October 1987.

Making the Collection Accessible

While the collection has been available through CRL since 1987, the content was until recently largely inaccessible due to a lack of a finding aid for the microfilm. LAMP made several attempts to devise a means of access to the collection, but given the size, complexity, and relatively rushed nature of the preservation process, easy solutions proved elusive. In 2000–01, CRL staff painstakingly combed through each reel to identify the location and content of every processo and related files. The final reel guide (accessible through CRL’s online catalog) serves as a research complement to the 12-volume printed index, and is sorted both by reel number and by BNM (project) number.

In January 2011, Marlon Alberto Weichert (Procurador Regional da República, Ministério Público Federal) contacted CRL to explore a partnership to digitize the full collection of reels. Weichert had found that over time, the paper archive in Campinas had suffered losses in the course of its use. Essential pages of historical significance were missing, including testimony of political prisoners that included the names of their torturers. LAMP’s Executive Committee discussed the project at length and readily agreed to collaborate on this endeavor. LAMP contributed duplicate negatives of the reels for scanning in Brazil.

The collection of case files, indexes to the collection, supporting documentation from the arquivo de material apreendido, and other materials related to the project are currently being scanned at the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo, after which the files will be accessible as open access material on the Internet. The Ministerio is expected to contribute up to $200,000 to the project, with additional contributed funds and work by the project collaborations.

CRL and LAMP are pleased to have been guardians of the Brasil: Nunca Mais collection until it could be made more broadly accessible. After more than 40 years of relative obscurity, the Brasil: Nunca Mais Digital project seeks to restore this valuable contribution to Brazil’s historical and cultural patrimony, while boosting the availability of the material for research by civil society and Brazilians seeking the truth.