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BRAZIL: Torture, Brazilian Style

9 minute read

Torture is still widely used in Brazil, despite pledges made last spring by the country’s new President, General Ernesto Geisel, to halt the barbaric practice. According to a report compiled by Brazilian Roman Catholics, former victims and attorneys, at least 79 persons have died under torture in the past nine years and thousands of others have been subjected to beatings, electric shocks and other torments. Torture, said the report, has become “institutionalized” in Brazil, conducted mainly by military security forces. A recent victim was former United Methodist Missionary and TIME Stringer Fred B. Morris, 41, who was held without charges for 17 days by military officials in Recife. His report:

After a chance meeting on the street, my Brazilian friend Luis Soares de Lima, 27, and I were getting into my car when about a dozen men in jeans and sports shirts, armed with machine guns and .45-cal. automatics, surrounded us, covered our heads with hoods, forced us to the floor of a station wagon and roared off. The man in the front was speaking into a walkie-talkie, using the code word hospital, saying that the “operation was a success,” and that we would be arriving in a few minutes. We did—at the Fourth Army headquarters in downtown Recife.

Luis and I were immediately separated. I was forced to remove my clothing, except for shorts, and was dragged off to a small cell and left alone. Having lived in Brazil for most of the past ten years, I had heard all the horror stories about torture, and I wondered whether my fate would be the same as Paulo Wright’s; the son of U.S. missionaries, he was arrested more than a year ago, and has not been heard from since. To calm myself, I repeated, very deliberately, the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not


Yea, though I walk through the valley

of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil; for thou art

with me..

I felt a calm inner strength, which stayed with me. I needed it. After about 15 minutes, the cell door was flung open, my head again hooded, my hands manacled behind my back, and I was dragged off to a room that for me became a torture chamber. I again repeated the 23rd Psalm, as I was to do on every such trip for the next three days.

Still hooded, I was roughly pushed to the end of the room, and the questioning began. Several men were present. They wanted to know about Luis. They said he was a Communist, which I doubt. I said that we were friends, but that I knew nothing of his political activities. For my answer, I was kicked three times in the groin until I fell to the floor in pain. Questions continued: Where was Luis going? Why was he with me? My answers were met with fist blows to my chest, belly, kidneys and back.

More Shocks. The beatings went on for about half an hour. Then water was poured on the floor around me, a wire was fastened to the second toe of my right foot, and a spring-clip electrode to the nipple of my right breast, pinching so hard it cut the flesh. Trying to make me confess that I was a Communist, they resumed the questioning. Now my denials were met with shocks as well as fists. The voltage was successively increased, becoming so painful that I doubled over until I fell to the floor.

After about 20 minutes, the electrode was shifted from my breast to my right ear. These shocks seemed to be taking off the top of my skull. A blue-white lightning filled my head. Spasms forced open my mouth in screams, then slammed it shut on my tongue. My agony was highly entertaining to my inquisitors; there was much laughter in the room.

Next, the electrode was removed from my ear, and my shorts were pushed down. I remember saying “Oh, no!” I knew what was coming. The spring clip was placed at the base of my penis. Spasms threw my legs out from under me, causing me to fall with all my weight on my back. This ordeal continued for about an hour: questions, shocks, blows to head and body, falling to the floor, getting up to repeat the process.

Then I was dragged back to the cell. The handcuffs were taken off, passed around the outside of one of the bars of the door, at eye level, and refastened with my hands in front of my face. After about 15 minutes, back to the torture chamber for more questions, beatings and shocks. This continued for several hours. Then I was strapped to an armchair, wired with one electrode on my now bleeding right breast and the other on my right ear. The shocks were unbearably painful. At least twice I blacked out.

Finally, the real reason for their interest in me emerged: my inquisitors began asking endless questions about Roman Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara, a vocal critic of the regime and a friend of mine. They were furious about stories that I had filed to TIME and the Associated Press that they considered favorable to the Recife archbishop and unflattering to the dictatorship. They cursed Dom Helder, claiming that he was a liar when he accused the government of condoning torture. Their tirade was accompanied by more shocks and my screams. Twice during the afternoon they tortured me in front of Luis in an effort to get information from him. He refused to give in, though I could tell he was distressed by my pain.

Fat Man. At one point, the most vicious of my tormentors got down on his knees in front of me, lifted up my hood so I could see his face and said that he would kill me if I did not cooperate. I believed him. Later, he told me his name: Luis Miranda Filho, a swarthy fat man with a huge black mustache. He is a notorious sadist, known in Recife to be responsible for countless tortures. He and a Colonel Meziat, identified as chief of intelligence of the Fourth Army and the man responsible for my imprisonment and torture, were the only ones I saw whose names I learned.

After more than eight hours of torture, I was allowed to use a bathroom for the first time, then taken back to my cell and hung by handcuffs on the door for the night. I was in a standing position, the handcuffs so tight on my wrists that circulation was nearly cut off; my left hand had been sprained and was painfully swollen. I passed the night standing and occasionally dozing, then being jerked awake as I sagged toward the floor and the cuffs pulled painfully on my wrists.

The next morning, exhausted from shocks, bruises and lack of sleep, I was hooded and hauled off again. Once more I recited the 23rd Psalm and again arrived before the interrogators inwardly at peace. I was made to stand, and electrodes were again placed on my breast and ear. Questions moved back to my arrival in Brazil in 1964 and all of my career as a missionary of the United Methodist Church, then focused mainly on my journalistic activities for TIME and the A.P. Between sessions I was again hung on the cell door. Except for about an hour when I was strapped to the armchair, I was on my feet from Monday morning until sometime Tuesday evening.

That night the turnkey opened the peephole and offered me half a cup of water and a piece of bread—my first food or water since breakfast on Monday. Then back to more interrogation, which continued for a couple of hours. After that, I was dumped on the floor of my cell. I was still in my shorts, with no blanket, bed or pillows, just the bare concrete. I fell into an exhausted sleep, and was allowed to rest through the night.

Wednesday morning I was hung up on the wall of the torture room by handcuffs, with my arms high over my head. More questions about Archbishop Câmara, TIME and Luis were accompanied by beatings on the back and kidneys. After about 15 minutes, I was taken down, turned around and hung up again, this time with my back to the wall, exposing my belly to their blows. Later, they turned me to the wall again, demanding to know the name of Luis’ fiancee, so they could arrest her. I said I didn’t know her, though I did. They used a new (to me) shock device. It was some kind of wheel with spikes on it, which they rolled across my back, scratching me. As they pushed down on it, it also gave me a severe electric shock.

At one point during this session, I was startled by a cold piece of metal being placed on my chest. I discovered that it was a stethoscope: the prison doctor was just checking my heart to see how I was bearing up.

To my surprise and despite my fears, I was bearing up rather well. I had not betrayed any confidences though I had none that could possibly have been of interest to the government, or made any false admissions.

I spent Wednesday night shackled to the door again, but on Thursday the questioning was accompanied by only a little torture. And then came help. U.S. Consul Richard Brown in Recife was finally given permission to see me. My friends had alerted him to my disappearance. It took him three days to get Brazilian authorities to honor an international agreement granting foreigners the right to see diplomatic representatives of their country. On Friday Ambassador John H. Crimmins officially protested my treatment to the Brazilian Foreign Office in Brasilia. After five more days, Brown managed to get Colonel Meziat to provide a mattress for me; in seven days I was given decent food and a New Testament. After 17 days of confinement, during which I lost 15 pounds, President Geisel signed an expulsion order. Without being given a chance to get any money from my bank account or arrange my personal affairs, I was escorted by the federal police to Rio, told that I would goto prison for from one to four years if I ever returned to Brazil (though no official charges were ever made), and placed on board a flight to New York—and freedom.

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