RIO DE JANEIRO -- President Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday removed several members of a commission investigating disappearances and murders during Brazil's dictatorship, acting days after they confronted him on the role played by the state in the killing of a leftist activist.
A decree co-signed by Bolsonaro's human rights minister and published in official records announced the replacement of four of the commission's seven members, including its president, Eugenia Augusta Gonzaga.
Bolsonaro has faced intense criticism, including from allies, this week after he questioned the circumstances in which Fernando Santa Cruz, a leftist activist during the 1964-1985 military regime and father of the current president of the Brazilian Bar Association, was slain.
On July 24, the commission published an official obituary for Santa Cruz. It stipulates that his death in 1974 was "violent, caused by the Brazilian State, in the context of the systematic and generalized persecution" of political activists during the dictatorship.
A few days later, without providing evidence, Bolsonaro said while getting a haircut that Santa Cruz had been killed by a "terrorist group," Ação Popular. Bolsonaro told journalists that if the president of the Brazilian Bar Association wanted to know how his father died: "I'll tell him."
Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, has often praised the military regime and minimized abuses committed by that regime.
In 2016, when voting to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, who was a victim of torture by the military regime, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to a colonel who led a torture unit. "In memory of Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff, I vote yes," said the then lawmaker.
After being elected president last Oct. 28, Bolsonaro named several ex-generals to his Cabinet. He also called for the commemoration of the anniversary of Brazil's 1964 military coup, leading federal prosecutors to condemn an "apology for the practice of atrocities."
In 2014, Brazil's national truth commission concluded that at least 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 people were illegally arrested and tortured. Bolsonaro called the report "unfounded."
To justify the changes made Thursday at the commission, Bolsonaro said times are changing in Brazil.
"The motive (is that the) president has changed, now it is Jair Bolsonaro, of the right," he told reporters. "When they put terrorists there, nobody said anything."
Bolsonaro and human rights minister Damares Alves appointed Marco Vinicius de Carvalho, one of Alves' top advisers, as the commission's new leader. The decree gave seats on the body to a member of the Ministry of Defense, which already had a seat on the commission, and a former army colonel.
At a news conference in Sao Paulo following her dismissal as the body's president, Gonzaga described Bolsonaro's mocking of official documents around the death of Santa Cruz "cruel."
She said members of the commission had been expecting to be replaced since the election for their "prominent role in defending" victims of the dictatorship.
"For us, this destitution was a response to our manifestations, defending the rights of the Santa Cruz family and others," Gonzaga said.
She also insisted that the commission, which began in 1995, is not a government body, like ministries, which change with each new government.
"The commission has always been nonpartisan, always including people who have some connections with this theme, and they are not paid," she told a crowd of journalists and families of victims of the dictatorship.
Felipe Santa Cruz, son of Fernando Santa Cruz, filed a complaint Wednesday to Brazil's top court about the president's comment on the case. Santa Cruz, who was 2 when his father went missing, wrote that Bolsonaro's comments showed "cruelty and a lack of empathy."
According to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, supreme court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso gave Bolsonaro 15 days to clarify his statements about Santa Cruz. The supreme court was not immediately available to confirm.