RIO DE JANEIRO,
Brazil -- Brazilian medical associations have begun hearings to strip the
right to practice medicine from doctors who took part in the torture of political prisoners
during the military dictatorship, which ended in the 1980s.
Based on government
records and more than a decade of investigations, the groups are seeking
sanctions against 26 physicians who worked in military prisons between 1964 and 1985. They are
accused of violations ranging from the supervision of torture to the signing of autopsies that listed
false causes of death for political prisoners.
advocates and news accounts describe the proceedings as the largest effort
physicians accused of such abuses since doctors who worked in Nazi concentration camps were put
on trial after World War II. Rights groups abroad have enthusiastically endorsed the effort to revoke
medical licenses, which they call an important advance in holding violators accountable for their
"This is an absolutely
remarkable and historic development, something I thought would never be
possible," Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said in a
telephone interview from the group's headquarters in Washington.
Until the mid-1980s,
Brazil, like Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, was ruled by a right-wing
military dictatorship. Some 400 Brazilian political prisoners, about half of whom "disappeared," died
in custody, and surviving political prisoners filed about 8,000 formal complaints of torture.
The death toll
was much higher in Argentina and Chile, where efforts to punish doctors
the torture of political prisoners have been largely unsuccessful. Brazil has also gone further than
other countries in acknowledging state responsibility for rights abuses committed under military rule;
in 1995, for example, the government authorized payment of $158,000 to relatives of each of the
As in other South
American countries, however, an amnesty decreed here 20 years ago prevents
survivors of torture or the relatives of those who died while in military hands from filing criminal
charges against their accused tormentors. But Vivanco said the new proceedings "send a clear
message which could help to discourage medical doctors" from violating their Hippocratic oath in
countries where such practices are said to continue, like Cuba and Mexico.
proceedings, which began March 3 and are expected to continue through the
are a result of a 13-year effort by the Brazilian human rights organization Torture Never Again.
"There has been
resistance every step of the way, with the accused and their allies trying
proof and cover up their involvement," said Edila Pires, president of the group's Sao Paulo chapter.
Based on information
from former political prisoners, in 1990 the group asked the medical
associations here and in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, to revoke the licenses of 110 doctors
implicated in violations. Since then several of the accused have died, others have retired, some went
to court to prevent any action from being taken against them and a few have filed harassment suits
against the group.
But the first
of the cases heard, that of Dr. Jose Lino Coutinho, a gynecologist who
now operates a
clinic here, ended with revocation of his license. Coutinho, 58, was accused of overseeing the torture
of 11 political prisoners in 1969.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company