¡hasta la fotocopia, siempre!

Ah, the photocopier. Not very exciting.

But what if photocopying led to the revelation of those involved in human rights abuses? What if mindless photocopying became an act of civil disobedience, a revolutionary act?

I re-encountered a story I'd heard a while back this week, about a secret operation to record military abuses during the Brazilian dictatorship (1964- 1985). Like many Latin American regimes of the time, torture became a standard means of control. In 1979 both political prisoners and state security agents were granted amnesty, preventing investigation into torture and detentions. The law, however, did allow lawyers to see official court records and even take away individual files for up to 24 hours. The records included detailed accounts of torture, including the witness statements of victims, who were often then returned into the hands of their torturers by the military judges.

A presbyterian minister and the Archbishop of São Paulo together spotted an opportunity to exploit the law. With funding from the World Council of Churches (smuggled into Brazil by individuals carriers) they hired a small group of lawyers. The lawyers began accessing the military records under the pretense of preparing amnesty submissions. Each file was formally checked out of the military archives and taken to a small office in the centre of Brasilia, equipped with three photocopiers. The team worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, to copy the records in time to return them without suspicion the next day. The photocopies were backed up on microfilms and smuggled out of Brazil to the World Council of Churches offices in Geneva. For three years volunteers and lawyers worked in secret, until the entire archive of one million pages had been copied.

At the same time, the team had begun to process the information, producing a seven thousand page report into state violence. Two journalists were employed to write a popular version of the report. On July 15th 1985, without any advance publicity, copies of the book, Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil, Never Again) began surfacing in shops throughout Brazil. The military at first attempted to ban the book, but soon discovered the book was about to be published in the USA and that a complete backup of the archive existed in Geneva.

Nunca Mais proved conclusively that torture was fully part of the military justice system. Some months after its publication, a list of more than four hundred people responsible for the torture was made public, leading to the torturers removal from state office. In 1999 Brazilian medical associations began hearings to revoke the medical licenses of doctors who took part in the torture of political prisoners between 1964 and 1985.

We are called to be truth-tellers, peace-makers, justice-bearers. Our chances to do such work may be limited to the dull and routine, but they are there, waiting for us to take them up.

Much of the text describing the process in Brazil is taken from the Oxford Research Group's booklet on peace-making, available for free download on their site.

Harper, Charles R. (2006) O Acompanhamento – Ecumenical Action for Human Rights in Latin America 1970 -1990 Geneva: WCC Publications

See also Lawrence Weschler’s account of the Nunca Mais project, A Miracle, a Universe - Settling Accounts with Torturers (University of Chicago Press, 1998).