Martín Almada

Awarded 2002


For his outstanding courage in bringing torturers to justice, and promoting democracy, human rights and sustainable development.

Martín Almada is a Paraguayan lawyer and rural teacher dedicated to human rights protection and democracy building. Tagged as “subversive” by the Latin American dictatorships, he later found the so-called “Terror Files”, three tons of military documentation on the Condor Plan. The ‘Archives of Terror’ are the most important collection of documents ever recovered about state terror in the whole continent. Days after the finding, Almada convened a national commission to protect the Archive.

Where the government once operated a detention and torture centre, Almada and his team founded the “Museum of Memory”, a key institution in the teaching of Paraguay’s recent history. He founded the Celestina Pérez de Almada Foundation in memory of his dead wife, aiming to struggle against poverty and protect the environment.

For his doctoral thesis, Paraguay, Education and Dependency, he was branded an ‘intellectual terrorist’ by the military authorities. He was illegally detained and tortured for three years and forced into exile for another 15 years. Being abroad, he worked for UNESCO and wrote books on his experiences in prison. Once back in his native country, he found valuable historical documentation to pursue the state and the military agents.

Impunity generates more repression and more corruption. Thus we must fight for justice, because life lies on the road to justice.

Martín Almada, 2002 Laureate

Martín Almada was born in 1937 to a low-income family in the Chaco Region of Paraguay. Although obliged to work from an early age, he completed a law degree in 1968 and a doctoral degree in educational science in 1972.

Together with his first wife, Professor Celestina Perez de Almada, he founded the Instituto 'Juan Baptista Alberdi' in his home town of San Lorenzo. This became an important institution of conscientisation and cooperative development, which was violently suppressed under the dictatorship of General Stroessner in 1974. In the same year, Almada finished his doctoral thesis, Paraguay, Education and Dependency, for which he was branded an 'intellectual terrorist' by the authorities.

He spent three years in a concentration camp, where he was regularly tortured. During this time, his wife died (Almada says 'psychologically murdered' by the police). He was released in 1977 and granted asylum in Panama, following a sustained campaign by Amnesty International. He went into exile with his mother and three children.

He wrote his book, Paraguay: la Carcel Olvidada, el Pais Exiliado, about his experiences in prison, which was published in 1978, having an enormous impact in international human rights circles. In 1986 he published a book of poems, largely written in prison. He joined UNESCO in Paris, working in the environmental education division where he had responsibility for rural development projects in Africa and Latin America.

During his exile, he campaigned relentlessly on human rights issues. After the fall of the Argentinean Junta following the Malvinas War, he made several visits to Argentina to speak about human rights and his educational theories. When Stroessner was overthrown in 1989, he immediately returned to Paraguay and began to play a leading role in the new human rights movement and the transition to democracy.

An early focus of his activities was to seek to bring the torturers to justice and get compensation for the victims. He filed an action in court against Stroessner and his accomplices for the murder of his wife, his wrongful imprisonment and the confiscation of his goods. In 1991 he also published his book Paraguay: Proyecto National to contribute towards the foundation of a new constitution.

In 1992 he left his job in UNESCO and returned definitively to Paraguay. His major concern was securing the release into the public domain of the papers of the dictatorship concerning repression and torture. He requested to see his criminal record. The government replied that there was none, and they denied that he has ever been deprived of his liberty. The breakthrough came when Almada discovered the archive, and a judge ordered it to be made public.

On December 22, 1992, he found the so-called "Terror Files", three tons of military documentation on the Condor Plan. This 'Archives of Terror' has proved the most essential collection of documents of state terror ever recovered. It is crucial not just for Paraguay but for the whole of Latin America and, indeed, for the world. In the Archive, Almada found his file detailing his imprisonment and torture, which the Paraguayan Government had always denied. Within a week, he had convened a national commission to protect the Archive.

Within a month, the government had ratified a convention passed by the Congreso National two years before. Further archives were found (some buried) in police stations.

However, the government continued to drag its feet over the bringing of human rights violators to justice. In 1994 Almada set up the Paraguayan branch of the American Association of Jurists and organised a series of Tribunals against the leading criminals, starting with General Ramon Duarte Vera, who had been Stroessner's Chief of Police and who was considered the regime's chief torturer.

Duarte was then living comfortably as Paraguay's ambassador to Bolivia. After hearing many witnesses of torture and assassination, the Tribunal convicted him - and though this judgment had no legal force, the evidence was so overwhelming that he was subsequently recalled by the government, put on trial and sentenced to 16 years in prison. In 1996 Almada was the prime mover in establishing a Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims in collaboration with the International Centre in Denmark (1988 Right Livelihood Award Laureate).

This activity in the human rights area was by no means the only application of Almada's formidable energy. Immediately on his return to Paraguay, he had set up, with his second wife, Maria Stella Caceres, the Fundación Celestina Perez de Almada, in memory of his first wife. The aim of this foundation was "to struggle against poverty and for the protection of the environment", and its principal programme, UNIBANCOOP, has four areas of work: Economy and Solidarity, Environmentally Appropriate Science and Technology, Alternative Education and Human Rights. The human rights division has occupied most of the foundation's time, but the other dimensions have always been present and are now coming more to the fore.

Almada put at the disposal of his foundation much of his savings from his years working for UNESCO and used some of his contacts to set up a joint project with a French and African NGO. The education work is carried out through two projects: one on literacy through a national network set up by the foundation and a project on Education with Production in Rural Areas.

The technology and environment project work is carried out through a project to use solar energy for alternative development and has so far focused on the use of parabolic mirrors for solar cooking.

Almada has received several national awards, including 'Man of the Year, 1992' from the National Television, and the Human Rights Prize in 1997 from the French Government to recognise his discovery of the Archives of Terror.

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