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Retired Brazilian colonel ordered to pay damages

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STAN LEHMAN | June 27, 2012 02:03 PM EST | AP

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SAO PAULO — A court has ordered a retired Brazilian army colonel to pay damages for the torture and death of a journalist 41 years ago during Brazil's long military dictatorship.

The anti-torture group Tortura Nunca Mais said the ruling posted on the court's website Wednesday is first time a former high-ranking officer has been ordered to pay compensation to relatives of torture victims of the military government that ruled Latin America's biggest country between 1964 and 1985.

In past cases, compensation was paid by state and federal governments rather than individuals, said Cecilia Coimbra, president of the group, whose name translates as Torture Never Again.

"The judge handed down a historic ruling because for the first time Ustra is held personally responsible, as a torturer and murderer, for the death of Merlino," Coimbra said.

Sao Paulo state court Judge Claudia de Lima Menge said that former Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra was responsible for beatings that led to the death of Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Merlino in a Sao Paulo jail in 1971. At the time, Ustra was the head of Sao Paulo's secret police.

Menge ordered Ustra to pay 50,000 reals ($25,000) each to Merlino's common-law wife and his sister.

In her ruling, Menge said that authorities claimed Merlino had committed suicide while being transported to another prison facility, "but the condition of his body and testimony from other political prisoners made it clear that he died from lack of medical attention after the brutal beatings he suffered."

She said Ustra "took part in the torture sessions and determined the intensity of each blow."

Paulo Alves Esteves, one of Ustra's attorneys, told reporters he will appeal the ruling because of Brazil's 1979 amnesty law that bars prosecutions for politically motivated crimes during the military regime.

Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed efforts by federal prosecutors to file kidnapping charges against retired army Col. Sebastiao de Moura, tying him to the junta era disappearance of 62 communists.

The government recently named the members of a Truth Commission charged with investigating human rights abuses under the dictatorship. Its report, to be ready in two years, won't result in prosecutions because of the amnesty law. But the commission has subpoena powers, and public servants and military personnel are legally obligated to cooperate.