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.