It is Dolly Filartiga's turn to relate the tale of her brother's torture and murder. Dressed fashionably in a navy blue suit, heels, and pearls, she stands in the center of the room at Antioch Law School and begins in Spanish. She recites the details: the well-scrubbed Joelito, 17 years old . . . son of a noted Paraguayan doctor and critic of the police-state government of President Alfredo Stroessner . . . abducted in 1976 in Asuncio'n, Paraguay . . . Dolly herself, several hours later, was brought to the police inspector's house where she found the mutilated body . . . whipped, slashed, electrically shocked . . . cause of death: heart seizure . . .
"She ran out of the house very upset," the University of Maryland student near her translates for the group. "The police inspector said, 'Take your brother's body, because we'll throw it away if you don't.' "
She interlocks her fingers in front of her, wringing her hands in confusion. Around her, plates of cheese and crackers set out on tables for the reception wilt in the stuffy room.
"She doesn't want to go on and get into the details and start to cry again," the translator tells the group. Dolly Filartiga smiles wanly, hands now in her pockets. The audience applauds her fervently. Her father, physician Joel Filartiga, stands calmly next to her. They are given a plaque from the law school honoring them for their human rights work. "Muchisimas gracias," he says politely.
"There is no peace," Dolly Filartiga says later. "There is no time . . . I used to scream and say to myself, 'I hate it. I don't want to be my father's daughter.' "
The murder, several years past, is still with them. So is the lawsuit that the Filartigas filed in federal court in New York against the alleged murderer, an action that made legal history. In a landmark ruling two years ago, a federal appeals court allowed the Filartigas to sue, in the United States, former Paraguayan police inspector Americo Pena, the alleged murderer discovered living in Brooklyn illegally. But Pena was deported to Paraguay. A U.S. District Court in New York must decide whether the Filartigas should get $10 million in damages, although they have little hope of collecting.
"From the beginning we knew we weren't going to get any money from Pena," says Dolly Filartiga, who is seeking political asylum in the United States. "He doesn't have any."
At this point it is publicity that they seek for their case, publicity that Joel Filartiga can wear as a protective mantle against further reprisals from the Paraguayan government he continues to criticize. He says that he has been jailed five times since 1963. According to the lawsuit filed against Pena, Filartiga says his son was killed "in retaliation for the political activities and opinions of his father." The suit also says that Filartiga initially tried to sue in Paraguay, but his lawyer was arrested and threatened by Pena. The lawyer withdrew from the case.
According to Rhonda Copelon at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, one of several attorneys who represent the Filartigas here, the Paraguayan government maintains that Joelito Filartiga was stabbed to death in a crime of passion. A man named Hugo Duarte, according to the government, came home one night and found his wife--who was related to Pena and living in his house--in bed with the Filartiga teen-ager. Duarte reportedly confessed and was imprisoned. "Duarte in prison denied it," said Copelon, "and the woman who was supposedly the lover has disappeared. But aside from that, Joelito didn't die of stab wounds . . . It's completely incredible. Even a newspaper in Paraguay said that Duarte said he did it, but no one believes it."
Stroessner's Paraguay is considered a repressive regime where political opposition members are often jailed, tortured, or exiled. At the court hearing on the damage suit last month, Robert White, former ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador, talked about the frequency of torture in Paraguay. "White testified at the hearing that torture is a way of life for people in Paraguay," said Copelon. "He said almost everybody has someone in their family who's been tortured."
Now, in the Filartiga family, the brunt of the speaking, the explaining, the criticizing of the Paraguayan government for what they feel it has done to their lives and others' lives falls on the shoulders of father and oldest daughter.
"We don't want them to have to do it," says Dolly Filartiga of her younger sisters, aged 18 and 21, both married. "We don't want them to have to go through it all. They are so little. We want them to have a different life, to be easy. My father, my mother and I," she says with a smile, pointing toward her head, "are a little bit crazy."
Father and daughter sit, the morning after the reception, in the Capitol Hill offices of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an organization which monitors U.S. policy on Latin America and helps Latin American opposition leaders speak out. The Filartigas wear the same clothes as the night before, because someone has broken into a friend's car parked near the Antioch Law School and stolen their luggage.
Joel Filartiga, 49, is a big man with a sober yet gentle face. Dark, thick eyebrows stand out on a face with a neatly trimmed graying beard. He speaks little English and lets 26-year-old Dollydo much of the talking. He listens seriously, nodding sometimes, training his eyes downward over the rounded belly under his black three-piece suit. The son of a tobacco exporter, he grew up wealthy in Paraguay. . For the last 22 years he has run a clinic in the town of Ybycui, ministering to the poor, who pay him with eggs, chickens, beans, and potatoes. There is also a bourgeois population in the town. These people, he charges for his services.
"I charge them as if I were in Asuncio'n," he says, through an interpreter, a smile breaking across his face. "They don't like it." Dolly Filartiga's words tumble out in English, which she learned three years ago. She is pretty, with a round, smooth face and eyes that look tired. At the time of her brother's death, she lived in a house in Asuncio'n with her brother and sisters. There she went to school, danced at discos, and enjoyed her freedom away from the watchful eye of her strict father. Her parents drove into Asuncio'n on weekends. Since she came to New York at the age of 22, she has lived in sublet apartments and hotel rooms, washed dishes at restaurants and done clerical work for one of the lawyers who represented the Filartigas here.
Whatever frustration her father feels, he shows only in his pen-and-ink drawings--a mix of abstract shapes and snarling faces with crocodile teeth or plaintive faces with mournful eyes. There is one of his son's body, bloody and bound at the ankles. "They don't sell that well, says Dolly Filartiga. "We sell them for nothing really. We need the money for the clinic."
"It is very necessary that I go back," says Joel Filartiga, who spent several weeks in New York before coming to Washington. "An opposition senator in Paraguay said that it's too dangerous to come back now. That's why we're here. It's very important to have the support of other people. We're only working now because we've had support from WOLA, from the State Department. There was a very long letter to the Paraguayan government signed by 37 senators." Filartiga quotes snatches of it from memory: " . . . we ask for justice in this case . . . we're very interested in his work as a doctor . . . we're interested in seeing the state of siege lifted and the reestablishment of civil rights for all citizens."
Filartiga has asked the State Department to have a consular official meet him at the airport when he goes back to Paraguay in early April. "The State Department can't guarantee his safety," said George Rogers of WOLA, "but having people meet him is a help."
Filartiga says he chose to work in the countryside because few Paraguayan doctors do. "Eighty-seven percent of the doctors serve one part of the population," he says, reaching for a legal pad already filled with his detailed doodles of birds, to jot statistics. "They look to the rich areas."
"My father went to the best schools in Paraguay," says Dolly Filartiga. "He lived like the rich, but he has feelings for the poor. It's very confusing."
"There was a traditional feeling of compassion in my family--which I carried to the extreme," he says chuckling.
In Ybycui, his compassion has won him enormous respect. He has become, to a certain extent, the town sage. He is godfather to young children, he advises on marriages, he advises against selling tobacco crops too cheaply , according to his daughter. "Also he helped people persecuted by the government," she says. "He gave medical attention to people in jail who were tortured."
That kind of life has worn on his daughter. "I'm not like everyone else," she says. "People grew up, played with toys. I wasn't like that. I grew up with a gun in my hands. I was taken from my father . . . he was in jail. People would say they are going to kill us. You have to understand--the police come to your house. They take your father, they come to you . . ." She stands up, brushing her hands up her skirt to indicate attempts of rape. "We had no privacy in our house. Always people were there."
"Sometimes," she says, "I just want to be in a dark room with no one asking me questions--'Why are you rich and you like poor?'--so many questions. Sometimes I feel good. Other times, I just want to sleep for a month. I think I need a break."
But as they leave the WOLA offices to tell their story at a meeting with congressional aides, her father says, "I don't see any chance of a vacation. Freedom would be a vacation."