Promoting justice by leveraging the legal rights to access victims’ records

The Centro de Documentación y Archivo (CDyA) opened police files to the public after the country’s 35-year military dictatorship.

The constitution of Paraguay, like the constitutions of five other Latin American countries, includes the right of habeas data: the right of former prisoners to control data collected about them and their experiences. After filing a petition to obtain his own file, Martin Almada, a former political prisoner, accompanied by a local judge, found thousands of detention files in a police station in Lambare in 1992.

These files document prisoners’ detention experiences in detail — including torture and other human rights violations — and have been used to corroborate individuals’ stories of detention during several Latin American dictatorships, to confirm the disappearance of citizens and as evidence in the prosecution of former police and military personnel in several Latin American countries.

The Paraguayan courts, including the Supreme Court, eventually ordered that the files be made accessible to the public. The archive, now under the control of the CDyA, is open to researchers, investigators, human rights activ­ists and the general public. CDyA has used the files as the basis for legal cases, to organize tribunals to prosecute the chief perpetrators of state-sponsored torture and illegal detention, and to inform the work of the Paraguayan truth commission. Twenty officials have been successfully prosecuted. The archive was also used to assemble the case for the extradition of General Augusto Pinochet from Great Britain to Spain in 1998.

CDyA has transferred 90 percent of the material in the archives to microfilm and is digitizing it as well. The group is also seeking to have the archives included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


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What we can learn from this tactic: 

In Paraguay, the Centro de Documentación y Archivo (the Center for Documentation and Archives or CDyA) is taking advantage of a law that gives former prisoners the right of habeas data — the right to control documents relating to their own cases — to create an “archive of terror.”

The availability of detailed information about human rights abuses can have important effects on those who suffered abuses as well as on the administration of justice after the abuses have ended. Almada’s efforts in Paraguay confirmed the experiences of many victims and made legal recourse an option.

While the files in Paraguay were discovered by accident, the tactic of purposefully opening files regarding human rights violations has been used by several governments. In Germany and several Eastern Europe countries, for example, governments have opened the files of victims of the secret police. In Germany, the files are maintained by an independent body called the Gauck Authority and open to victims but not to the general public. In Czechoslovakia and other countries, files were opened selectively and not made available to victims and some files slipped through cracks in the service of political purposes.

There have been numerous criticisms of and lessons learned from these tactical approaches. Tina Rosenberg at the Harvard Law School Human Rights program on truth commissions, for instance, states that “the fact that German files were opened helped to solve the problem of the files’ unreliability. Victims could help confirm whether or not the person accused of informing could actually have done what he was accused of. It is a self-checking mechanism, which does not exist in the Czech version. Furthermore in Germany, the victim can choose whether or not he wants to publicize the information about who informed on him. That is not public information.