BRASILIA Brazilian prosecutors said on Tuesday they would file charges against a retired colonel over the disappearance of five guerrillas during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the first such case to be brought against any military officer from that era.
Rights group Human Rights Watch said the decision was a "landmark step for accountability in Brazil".
The charges will be brought against Colonel Sebastiao Curio Rodrigues de Moura, who commanded troops that carried out the kidnapping and torture of five members of the Araguaia guerrilla movement in the Amazon that was fighting to impose communism, federal prosecutors said in a statement.
The colonel, then a major and known simply as Curio, was a notorious and ruthless figure from the dictatorship which began after a military coup. He took over the running of the region in the Amazon where his troops were stationed and earned a fortune overseeing artisanal mining.
The prosecutors said Curio's troops kidnapped the five Araguaia combatants in 1974 and tortured them at military bases under his command.
The five were never seen again.
"The violent conduct of kidnapping, assaulting and executing opponents of the military government regime, though carried out under the pretext they constituted measures to re-establish national peace, consisted of thoroughly criminal acts, violating human rights and legal order," the prosecutors said.
The charges follow an investigation of the alleged crimes that began in 2009.
Curio, 77, has more recently served as a federal congressman. He could face two to 40 years in prison if convicted.
Brazil's military dictatorship was less murderous than those in Argentina and Chile, but the country's leadership has been criticized for the timid steps it has taken to shed light on state crimes of that era and bring the perpetrators to justice.
"The decision by federal prosecutors to bring charges against a retired military officer for grave abuses committed in the 1970s is a landmark step for accountability in Brazil," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Military personnel have escaped punishment for dictatorship-era crimes due to an amnesty law enacted before democracy was restored.
But a 2010 ruling on the Araguaia kidnappings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Brazil must investigate the crimes and identify and punish those responsible.
There has been growing momentum in Brazil to repeal the amnesty law, with the fate of many disappeared still unknown. Around 475 people are estimated to have been killed or disappeared never to be seen again during the dictatorship.
The issue is a delicate one for Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first woman president, who was herself a left-wing combatant during the dictatorship and was subjected to torture at the hands of the military during three years of imprisonment.
There is strong resistance among the military against repealing the law. The military says its actions saved Brazil from a communist revolution, and Rousseff has been careful to avoid creating the perception she is out to avenge the wrongs she suffered.
Prosecutors say the 1979 amnesty law is not applicable in the case of the five combatants because no information had been offered about their fate and their bodies had not been found.
The five disappeared, three men and two woman, were named as Maria Celia Correa, Helio Luiz Navarro Magalhaes, Daniel Ribeiro Callado, Antonio de Padua Costa and Telma Regina Cordeira Correa.
(Reporting by Peter Murphy; editing by Mohammad Zargham)