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Breaking Silence

The Case That Changed the Face of Human Rights

Richard Alan White

Publication Year: 2008

Young seventeen-year-old Joelito Filártiga was taken from his family home in Asunción, Paraguay, brutally tortured, and murdered by the Paraguayan police. Breaking Silence is the inside story of the quest for justice by his father—the true target of the police—Paraguayan artist and philanthropist Dr. Joel Filártiga. That cruel death, and the subsequent uncompromising struggle by Joelito's father and family, led to an unprecedented sea change in international law and human rights. The author, Richard Alan White, first became acquainted with the Filártiga family in the mid-1970s while doing research for his dissertation on Paraguayan independence. Answering a distressed letter from Joelito's father, he returned to Paraguay and journeyed with the Filártiga family on their long and difficult road to redress. White gives the reader a compelling first-hand, participant-observer perspective, taking us into the family with him, to give witness to not only their agony and sorrow, but their resolute strength as well—strength that led to a groundbreaking $10 million legal decision in Filártiga v. Peña. (Americo Norberto Peña-Irala was the Paraguayan police officer responsible for Joelito's abduction and murder, whom the Filártigas had arrested after finding him hiding in Brooklyn.) That landmark decision, based on the almost obscure Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, ruled that U.S. courts could accept jurisdiction in international cases—recognizing the right of foreign human rights victims to sue—even though the alleged violation occurred in another country by a non-American and against a non-American. So fundamentally has the Filártiga precedent changed the landscape of international human rights law, that it has served as the basis for nearly 100 progeny suits, and grown to encompass not only human rights abuses, but also violations of international environmental and labor rights law. Today, there are dozens of class action suits pending against corporate defendants ranging from oil conglomerates destroying the Amazon rainforest to designer clothing companies running sweatshops abroad. Breaking Silence is a remarkable, consuming story, documenting not only the most celebrated case in the international human rights field—but also the tragic and touchingly human story behind it that gives it life. In 2001, Dr. Filártiga was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Alien Tort Claims Act continues to be hotly debated among politicians and lawmakers.

Published by: Georgetown University Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

This remarkable book gives readers a unique look into the most celebrated legal case in the international human rights field. Ironically, in 2004, at the very time this book is being published, the Justice Department of President George W. Bush is challenging that decision....

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pp. xv-xvi

In recognition of my appreciation for the people and institutions that have contributed moral, academic, technical, and financial support during the twenty-eight years it took for this work to come to completion, I owe special gratitude to Sharon O’Day, Laurie Solak, and Mitchell Alan White for research assistance; to Natalie Ann White...

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pp. xvii-xix

Dr. Joel Filártiga and I met through our mutual friend Roberto Thompson, then the editor of ABC Color, Paraguay’s largest newspaper. Roberto had agreed to publish an article of mine about the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay, in four consecutive Sunday Supplements. After reading the first installment, Filártiga stopped by the office...

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pp. 1

After the funeral, Dr. Joel Filártiga came home to a dead telephone. All night Joel had tried getting through to me, dialing my number in California and hearing a ring—and then the operator would break in, announce that all international lines were busy, and disconnect the call...

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pp. 2-38

It took nearly two weeks for Dr. Filártiga’s letter to reach me in Los Angeles. Those first few months of 1976 had been an exceptionally fulfilling time for me. With all but a few remaining formalities to complete my Ph.D. in Latin American history at UCLA, I had received a postdoctoral fellowship to return to South America....

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pp. 39-64

It began as a day like any other at the clinic. I awoke at five o’clock and drank some yerba mate tea.We made a list of the patients waiting outside. There were twenty-one. We gave them their numbers and started to work. ‘‘But at 10:05 in the morning, a messenger from the Antelco telephone kiosk in...

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pp. 65-86

When we turned off the paved highway onto the dirt road to Ybycuí, the going got rough. Bob Garrison backed off, putting more distance between us and the roiling plume of red dust thrown up by Filártiga’s speeding pickup. ‘‘I’m glad it’s Saturday afternoon siesta time,’’ Bob quipped. ‘‘The way Joel drives...

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pp. 87-110

Some weeks later, the crisis had passed. The place the OPM settled into— the big house of a former hacienda surrounded by an eight-foot wall—lay so far out in Asunción’s urban sprawl that banana trees still crowded along its dirt streets. My five human rights reporting groups started showing results, their information...

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pp. 111-132

Even if Duarte confesses, so what?’’ I asked Horacio Galeano Perrone as we drove to the courthouse on the morning of September 1. ‘‘What does it matter?’’ ‘‘Actually, from a legal perspective, it opens up quite a range of options,’’ Filártiga’s...

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pp. 133-158

Coming back to the States after a prolonged stay in an underdeveloped country, most everyone goes through some degree of culture shock. It can be unsettling, disorientating, even frightening. And the deeper one has lived under the oppression of that life, the greater the psychological reentry trauma....

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pp. 159-186

.After the holiday break, when the people and organizations supporting the Fil

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pp. 187-212

‘‘It was a Saturday afternoon last September,’’ Dolly told me as we waited at the JFK baggage claim. ‘‘A man came to the house in Sajonia. My aunt Coca was there and asked him what he wanted. The man told her that he was trying to deliver a letter for his boss. Coca didn’t remember his name, only....

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pp. 213-238

All right, how can we hold him?’’ Peter Weiss asked the half-dozen attorneys and law students gathered in the library. As the emergency meeting got under way that Wednesday afternoon, discouragement hung over everyone in the group—except maybe for Peter.....

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pp. 239-260

During moments when they had let their hopes soar, the Fil

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pp. 261-282

Three months later, the Filártigas won their suit in the U.S. district court. Shortly after the Circuit Court’s June 1980 decision, when it became clear that Stroessner would no longer fight the Filártiga v. Peña suit, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a motion for default judgment with Judge Nickerson. For....

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pp. 283-288

As he was rushing home from his 1984 European trip to be with his family for the holidays, Dr. Filártiga was arrested by the Paraguayan political police on December 24 at Aeropuerto Presidente Stroessner. After subjecting him to a humiliating strip search by a female officer, the police grilled him for hours. But Joel’s family, which had witnessed his detention as they...

Glossary and Abbreviations

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pp. 289-290


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pp. 291-300

E-ISBN-13: 9781589012813
E-ISBN-10: 158901281X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781589012240
Print-ISBN-10: 1589012240

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2008