On the anniversary of the end of Portuguese dictatorship, the testimonies of torture survivors may remind us to learn from the past — that torture is never justified.
Today, 38 years ago, a military coup ended almost 50 years years of dictatorial regime in Portugal. With it came the end of the Portuguese colonial war and the oldest European colonial empire. This was the carnation revolution in 1974.
During the dictatorship, particularly during the long-lasting regime of Salazar (1936-1972), Portugal saw an unprecedented curtailment of civil rights and liberties. Wide-reaching censorship succeeded to halt all initiatives against the government.
PIDE, the political police, became the regime’s most emblematic means of control. With its wide network of informants in schools, workplaces and recreational areas, PIDE corrupted Portuguese society from within and consolidated the power of Salazar, using, whenever necessary, physical and psychological torture to obtain confessions and accusations.
Fortunately, freedom came so quickly after the 1974 revolution, that most of the crimes committed by the regime have been told and retold with remarkable detail in numerous books, essays and news articles.
While it is not surprising that what I’ve just told resembles other revolutionary episodes of the same historical period, it is indeed quite striking that some of the torture testimonies of the period look a lot like recent international media stories on torture. We haven’t learned our lesson.
Already in 1932, for example, Salazar was using the “ticking time-bomb” [PDF] scenario to justify torture. At one occasion, he asked a journalist [PDF] whether “the lives of children and defenceless people are not worth, and justify, a dozen timely shakes on those sinister creatures…”.
Another, from 1974, shortly after the revolution, was told by the psychiatrist who evaluated many of the victims. He said that, “for the police, making the prisoners talk wasn’t the most important. What they were truly interested in was to destroy the prisoners personality and to create a climate of terror in the whole country through the stories told by the relatives of those subjected to torture”.
Today, while Portugal commemorates, we take the opportunity to honour the victims of torture and human rights defenders, many of whom were instrumental in bringing down the regime, thus changing the course of history. Their bravery should be honoured in learning from history; not repeating the justifications for and horrific practices of torture for those who seek governments that respect human rights.
For more information:
Some of the torture victims of Salazar’s regime were masterly portrayed in Susana de Sousa Dias’ prize-winning 2009 documentary film “48”. We recommend watching it [PDF]. Here is a clip: