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BRAZIL: Stiff Sentence for Killer of US-Born Nun Upheld

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 23 2007 (IPS) - The 27-year sentence handed down to the hired killer who murdered U.S.-born nun and activist Dorothy Stang in 2005 was upheld by a court in Brazil.

Human rights groups described as "emblematic" the trial of those who shot and killed Stang, an environmentalist and human rights defender who spent over three decades in Brazil working on behalf of landless peasants.

Rayfran das Neves was sentenced to 27 years in prison in May. But in Brazil, a sentence longer than 20 years automatically qualifies the convicted party for a new trial with a different jury.

The jury in Belém, the capital of the northwestern state of Pará, voted 7-0 at midnight Monday after a 14-hour trial to confirm the earlier sentence given to the man who confessed to shooting the 74-year-old Stang on Feb. 12, 2005 near Anapú, a rural village located 700 km from the state capital.

Sister Dorothy worked as a missionary for 23 years in that Amazon jungle village, supporting the struggle of poor farmers against abuses by loggers and ranchers and fighting the destruction of the rainforest.

Human rights lawyer Aton Fon, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, said that although the trial of das Neves was exemplary because of the unusual speed with which he was tried and found guilty, it was an "isolated case," merely an exception to the rule.

The lawyer, a member of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, attributed the speed with which Stang’s killer was brought to justice to the fact that the murder occurred just when a constitutional amendment making human rights crimes federal offences went into effect.

"That strengthened the interest in showing greater competence in clarifying the murder," said Fon, who did not, however, downplay the significance of the trial.

Das Neves confessed that he shot the nun six times on a muddy jungle road. According to witnesses, she pulled a Bible from her bag and started reading out loud before she was shot.

But her killer denied that he had been paid for the murder, and said he shot the nun because she threatened him. The prosecutors interpreted his testimony as an attempt to clear the ranchers accused of ordering her murder.

In earlier depositions, das Neves had stated that rancher Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura paid him 25,000 dollars to kill the nun. He also declared that Bastos de Moura and another rancher, Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, gave him a gun to kill her.

"The fact that he was convicted so swiftly was really a new thing for the Brazilian justice system, because in the last few years, 1,600 rural workers have been killed in the struggle for land, and no sentences have been handed down in the huge majority of cases," said Marina dos Santos, one of the national leaders of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), which is fighting for faster, more effective land reform.

Dos Santos said in an interview with IPS that this was because Stang was a foreigner whose death had major international repercussions and received heavy global coverage.

As aggravating factors, Judge Raymundo Alves took into account the fact that the victim was a defenceless elderly woman, and that it was a hired killing.

Das Neves was not the only one found guilty of Stang’s murder. Bastos de Moura was sentenced to 30 years in prison for ordering the killing. But his retrial, which was to take place this week, has been postponed at the request of his lawyers.

Two accomplices to das Neves – another gunman and an intermediary – were also sentenced to 17 and 18 years, respectively.

Dos Santos pointed out that it is not common in Brazil for both the material and intellectual authors of murders to be tried in these cases, but said it would have been an international embarrassment for the country’s justice system if that had not occurred in this high-profile case.

Pereira Galvão, the other landowner accused of masterminding the murder, is still awaiting trial.

Stang began to help local peasants when the logging companies started to force them off their land to seize their wood. Her activism made her one of the top enemies of powerful local landowners, who were long used to resolving land dispute problems with their own methods – and total impunity.

Forty percent of the 1,237 murders linked to conflicts over land in Brazil between 1985 and 2001 took place in the northern state of Pará, which is characterised by a heavy concentration of rural property and economic and political power in the hands of a few elite landowning families.

Stang’s work on behalf of landless farmers in sustainable development projects and against illegal logging activities around Anapú brought her several death threats and landed her on a death list.

"Dorothy, like so many other rural workers and activists who have been killed in Brazil, was a symbol of the struggle for land, agrarian reform and preservation of the environment, especially in that region, where there are many conflicts with loggers," said dos Santos.

According to the Catholic Church Pastoral Land Commission, 3.5 percent of Brazil&#39s landholders own nearly 60 percent of the best farmland, while the poorest 40 percent of farmers have a mere one percent.

And today, said dos Santos, the growing presence of transnational companies in the Amazon jungle and other areas of the country is "fuelling the disputes over land."

She mentioned an incident that occurred on Sunday in Cascabel, in the southern state of Paraná.

The MST reported that a group of 40 armed men hired by the Swiss biotech firm Syngenta AG attacked a camp that the landless activists had set up on one of the company’s experimental farms.

MST leader Valmir Mota and one of the Syngenta security guards were killed, and eight activists and guards were injured. According to the MST, Mora was shot twice in the chest at point-blank range.

Several guards have been arrested, and face possible murder charges.

The area had been occupied by the MST in March 2006 to protest and draw attention to the illegal cultivation of and research into genetically modified soybeans and corn.

The Paraná state government recently banned transgenic corn.

In a statement, Syngenta lamented what occurred and said the company’s policies prohibit the use of weapons or force to protect its facilities.

"The big challenge faced by the MST and all social movements and groups fighting for land reform is the model imposed in our country, which gives priority to companies that degrade the environment and harm local communities," said dos Santos.

Another problem is the need to defend biodiversity from the threats posed by genetically modified crops, she added.

And "like in Pará, it is increasingly common throughout the country to see armed men guarding agribusiness interests," she said.

For his part, Fon said the Stang case is "emblematic" because it highlights "not only questions like the struggle for land, conflicts over land and the lack of a state presence in agrarian reform," but environmental issues as well.

There is "a clash between loggers and landowners who clear jungle to create grazing land, and organisations involved in sustainable development projects based on harmonious human coexistence with the jungle," he said.

"Dorothy was an early representative of that new struggle, not only as a defender of human or political rights, but also of social, cultural and environmental rights," said Fon.

Both Fon and dos Santos hope Tuesday’s ruling will help accelerate other pending cases in Pará.

But instead of declining in number, killings of rural activists actually increased in the wake of Stang’s murder.

Any real solution to the problem, said Fon, would require the government "to stop favouring large landowners, to take family agriculture into account, and to stop falling under the spell of the agroexport model," which only fuels conflicts over land.

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