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Dilma Rousseff. Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho, under a Creative Commons license.
Voices of Torture Victims

“No one leaves there without marks”


Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, is a torture survivor who thinks about the torture victims of the past and of the present.



Last Saturday, 1 January 2011, Ms Dilma Rousseff opened her first official speech as Brazil’s first female president by saying that she would not use the opportunity to boast about her own life story. However, most people would agree that her story, from enduring torture and prison during the country's 21-year military dictatorship to taking the helm of Latin America’s largest nation, is remarkable.


Almost 40 years ago, in January 1970, Dilma Rousseff was arrested in São Paulo due to her

participation in the movement of resistance against the dictatorship. She was taken to a prison kept by the Bandeirantes Operation (OBAN), an organisation created by the Brazilian Army to investigate members of the resistance against the military regime. There Dilma Rousseff survived 22 days of intense torture. One of the few occasions on which she spoke about what she went through during her time in prison was in an interview with the Brazilian journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho two years ago. 


“I was beaten a lot, suspended in the ‘parrot perch’, received many, many electric-shocks”, she told. “One day, I started to bleed, had bleeding that looked like a menstrual period and was taken to the Central Army’s Hospital. There I met a very young girl from the National Liberation Action (ed.: a leftist Brazilian guerrilla that stood against the military dictatorship) who advised me: “Jump for a while in your room to continue the bleeding and they will not take you back to OBAN”. 


Dilma Rousseff was sentenced by a military court to six years in prison but was released after almost three years. When she left prison, she was 25 years old and had lost 10 kg in weight. When asked by the Brazilian journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho about how she felt after the time she spent in prison, Rousseff’s was brief: “No one leaves there without marks”. 


She is convinced that “torture is one of the greatest evils that exist” and believes that “the deepest meaning of democracy necessarily includes putting an end to torture”. 


Despite the many years that have passed, Ms Rousseff still thinks about the torture victims of the past and of the present. “Those scenes of the men imprisoned in Guantamano and Abu Ghraib cannot be justified. That is barbaric”, she said. She invited 11 women with whom she shared cells during the years she was imprisoned to her inauguration. Those who did not survive the dictatorship were also remembered in her speech: “Many of my generation fell on the march, and they cannot share the happiness of this moment. With them I share this achievement, and I pay them tribute”. 


Dilma Vana Rousseff is 63 years old and an economist by background. She was born in Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais, to Bulgarian migrant Pedro Rousseff and teacher Dilma Jane da Silva. Divorced, she has one daughter and a grandchild.


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