Witnesses testify in civil trial on behalf of journalist killed during Brazil's military dictatorship

In a São Paulo court, six witnesses testified in a civil case of the death of journalist Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Merlino, who was tortured and killed 40 years ago during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), according to Agência Brasil. The defendant accused of killing the journalist, retired Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, did not appear in court.

The hearing was closed to the press and only family members of the victim about lawyers for the parties involved were present. The witnesses called to testify on behalf of Merlino's family said they had seen the defendant order the journalist to be tortured, reported Último Segundo.

One of the witnesses was Paulo Vannuchi, who served as Human Rights Minister during the administration of recent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Vannuchi said that in 1971 he also was captured by the army and saw Merlino dying in a cell. "He (Ustra) led all the torture sessions," Vannuchi said, as quoted by Agência Estado.

The witnesses for the defense will be questioned later, but the military's version of events, according to the news site UOL, is that the journalist committed suicide by intentionally crashing into a truck on a highway in the community of Jacupiranga.

Ustra already was convicted in civil court of being a torturer. Between 1970 and 1974, he directed the Department of Operations and Information and Center of Internal Defense Operations, where opponents to the government were detained. According to victims of the dictatorship, the department was one of the main torture centers of the military regime, and it also was where Merlino had been tortured and killed in 1971. During that time, the 23-year-old journalist worked for the newspaper Jornal da Tarde and was active in the Communist Workers Party.