Death of witness may stymie probe into Brazil dictatorship

RIO DE JANEIRO, (Reuters) – A month ago, retired army colonel Paulo Malhaes proudly declared that during Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship he had tortured leftists until they died and then cut off their hands to prevent their bodies from ever being identified.

“I tortured as many as I had to,” Malhaes, 76, told a special commission investigating crimes committed by the military during that era. “It’s difficult to say how many (victims) there were, but it was a lot.”

Late on Thursday Malhaes was found dead, face down and with signs of asphyxiation, after three men broke into his house outside of Rio de Janeiro.

Police are investigating whether the crime resulted from a robbery or an act of political revenge. But members of the so-called National Truth Commission probing the military’s abuses already fear Malhaes’ death will dissuade other witnesses from coming forward and cow others into silence.

“Some people are afraid now,” said Rosa Cardoso, a lawyer who is one of the commission’s leaders. “It will make our work more challenging, at least for a time.”

The commission was created in 2011 by President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former leftist guerrilla who was jailed and tortured by the military during the 1970s.

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