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Contract Killings


Friday, 9 May 2008

Few in Brazil were surprised when a jury overturned an Amazon rancher's conviction for killing an American nun.

Few in Brazil were surprised when a jury overturned an Amazon rancher's conviction for killing an American nun.
Much more surprising was that he was ever convicted in the first place.
Para state prosecutors vowed on Wednesday to appeal the acquittal of Vitalmiro Moura, accused of being a «mandante» _
mastermind _ behind the killing of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang, but acknowledged they face an uphill battle.
«It's very hard to even have a 'mandante' stand trial here, harder still to get one convicted,» said prosecutor Edson Souza.
In Para, where Stang was shot dead in 2005, contract killings are so common that a gruesome slang has grown up to describe the chain of command: the «pistoleiro» is the gunman, the «intermediario» is a go-between and the «mandante» orders the hit.
Stang, born in Dayton, Ohio, spent three decades living among the poor and defending the rights of settlers on the Amazon's wild frontier. Prosecutors say the killing was arranged _ even if the convicted gunman withdrew earlier testimony he was acting on Moura's orders.
«Everyone understands that these crimes are contract killings, but usually the only evidence of that comes from the gunman's testimony _ and he can easily be bought, intimidated or even killed,» said attorney Jose Batista Afonso of the Catholic Land Pastoral organization, which monitors rural violence.
At the root of the violence is the unclear land ownership in the vast Amazon region. Confrontations are frequent between settlers and ranchers, who often use forged deeds and force poor farmers off at gunpoint.
According to Land Pastoral, more than 800 people have been killed in land-related violence in Para over the past 35 years, but only five masterminds had ever been convicted before Moura.
So when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007, human rights advocates hailed it as evidence Brazil was finally cracking down on impunity.
But Brazilian law gives a second trial to any first offender sentenced to more 20 years in prison.

Alfonso suggested two factors in the reversal: «First, that the Brazilian jury system is very susceptible to economic power. The other is that the second time around, the international pressure and the pressure from movements in the region just wasn't the same.
At the first trial, the jury voted to convict Moura on the strength of testimony from confessed gunman Rayfran das Neves Sales and convicted middleman Amair Feijoli da Cunha, who said the rancher provided the weapon and offered US$25,000 for the killing.
But they both recanted their testimony later; Sales, facing his own retrial, said he felt threatened by the elderly nun and shot her in self-defense.
The decision also leaves in limbo the case against a second suspected mastermind in the Stang killing, rancher Regivaldo Galvao, who has so far managed to avoid trial.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's human rights chief issued a statement Wednesday expressing «vehement disagreement» with the verdict.
When Brazilian rain forest defender Chico Mendes was killed in 1988, his slayers were convicted amid heavy international attention. But they escaped prison by walking out the front door, and were re-arrested years later.

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