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Cruelty and Impunity in the Amazon

By Felipe Milanez, from Maraba. 

Last Thursday, another chapter in the history of violence and impunity in the Amazon was written in Brazil. In a trial to determine the guilt of those responsible for the killing of the environmentalist couple José Cláudio Ribeiro and Maria do Espírito Santo, on May 24th 2011 in Nova Ipixuna, state of Pará, a seven-member jury exonerated the intellectual author, the cattle rancher José Rodrigues Moreira. This means that an earlier decision to convict him was withdrawn, with the accused cleared of all charges. In a contradictory decision, the two gunmen hired to commit the crime – including the brother of José Rodrigues, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha, and Alberto Nascimento – were convicted, receiving prison sentences of 42 years, 8 months and 45 years, respectively.

This comes on the 25th anniversary of the killing of Chico Mendes, a crime with the same structure: a land conflict between a violent cattle rancher against a local environmentalist, killed by a gunman from the rancher’s family. In Chico’s case, it was Darcy, the son of Darly, who shot him dead. Now, in José Cláudio and Maria’s killing, the brother of Lindonjonson, José Rodrigues, remains free. The situation now is even worse than in 1988: the intellectual author is not only free, he also received the land that originated the conflict from the government.

The trial took two days. The first day, Wednesday April 3rd, consisted of instructions from the judge and the testimony of witnesses. Murilo Simão Lemos, the local judge, allowed no images or recordings. On the second day, the defense and prosecution spend five hours presenting their arguments of the two-year investigation. Some unusual developments in the course of the trial may have contributed to the eventual exoneration of José Rodrigues. Observers noted the curious conduct of the judge, who managed to confuse the jury in his interviewing of witnesses. Judge Lemos also made a deliberate effort to stain the memory of the couple, presenting them as violent activists “taking justice in their own hands”. In addition, a witness for the prosecution, who identified Lindonjonson as one of the men fleeing the settlement shortly after the crime, received a death threat as soon as he walked out of the courthouse. The witness for the defense who was supposed to place Lindonjonson at another town on the day of the crime nearly broke down in tears after she was unable to explain in any detail when it was she saw him or how she knew him, and may now face prosecution for perjury. Two members of the jury turned out to be evangelical Christians, sharing the same faith as defendant José Rodrigues, who got down on his knees before the court, asking for the Lord’s blessing. Rather than rebuke these theatrics as inappropriate in a court of law, Lemos offered Rodrigues water and a tissue and allowed him to beg pardon to the jury. One member of the jury was moved to tears.

The accused. Left and middle: convicted for murder. Right: ordered the murder, but received his 'pardon' from a religious jury

Social organizations involved in the movement for more equitable distribution of land and protection of the Amazon rainforest are circulating a letter that suggests that the conduct of Judge Lemos may have contributed to the 4-3 jury vote to free José Rodrigues Moreira. The 19 organizations that signed the document include the Pastoral Land Commission; the Movement of the Landless Workers; and the Council of Traditional Populations, a labor union founded by martyred activist Chico Mendes; and relatives of the murdered couple.

“During the interrogation of Jose Rodrigues Moreira, the judge allowed him to present a true spectacle in front of the jury: kneeling and sobbing, the accused used the Bible to swear his innocence and ask a special blessings for the judge, jurors, lawyers and people present on the jury. It seemed more appropriate for a mass than a trial. The only thing the judge did was offer the accused a tissue to wipe his tears. At the end of the show a juror burst into tears. As was disclosed in the press, when prosecutors objected to this display of religious sentiment and sought to have one of the jurors removed from the panel, the judge threatened to declare a mistrial and set the prisoners free. Faced with such a threat, prosecutors backed away from demanding the juror’s removal. Moreover, throughout the trial, the judge behaved more harshly towards the prosecution witnesses and lawyers, acting differently towards defense witnesses and lawyers.”

During the sentencing, Judge Lemos seemed to blame the victims for their own deaths, saying “the behavior of the victims in some way contributed to the crime (…) because they tried to take justice into their own hands, using third parties as landless squatters to prevent José Rodrigues from taking possession of a rural property.” As written by the social movements in the public letter, this is “an absurd claim, untrue and without any foundation,” again demonstrating the partiality of the judge. They are demanding a new trial.

They have also presented precedents of Lemos exonerating another farmer, Vicente Correia Neto. He was also accused of hiring two gunmen, Valdenir Lima dos Santos and Diego Pereira Marinho, to kill the union lider Valdemar Barbosa de Oliveira, know as Piauí, in July 2011. Marinho admitted Correia had paid them R$ 3.000 to kill Piauí but still, in August 2012, Lemos decided they were not guilty, after Marinho presented a new testimony.

Zé Cláudio and Maria were killed in the morning of May 24th 2011. As asserted in the lawsuit, they were ambushed by Zé Rodrigues’ brother (Lindonjonson Silva) and an accomplice (Alberto do Nascimento). The ambush was prepared on a road eight kilometers from their house, near a decrepit bridge, and the crime happened around 7:30 in the morning. The couple were going to Marabá, the main town in the region. They were shot point-blank with a hunting rifle (two shots in Zé Cláudio and one shot in Maria, as described in the police report), and Zé Cláudio’s ear was cut off with a knife, evidently to prove the hit took place. According to the report, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva were murdered because they had filed charges against José Rodrigues, accusing him of illegally purchasing land in the federally protected area of Praia Alta Piranheira. Zé Rodrigues had tried to expel two families living on the land he had bought. Zé Cláudio and Maria were helping them to resist a forceful takeover by Rodrigues, taking the case to the Pastoral Land Commission while denouncing the violence to authorities.

The couple was internationally recognized for their efforts to protect the forest, and were posthumously named “Forest Heroes” by the United Nations. In an interview six months before her death, Maria told me: I know I survive off the resources of the forest. Now that we’re learning from the forest, it’s teaching us a lot of things, we get a good return. But not everyone is patient enough.

In 2011, there were 12 murders in the state of Pará due to land conflicts, according to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT report). In Pará alone, 231 people were killed and 809 received death threats between 1996 and 2010, according to CPT. A new report will be released at the end of April, but CPT has already denounced 36 land-related killings in Brazil in 2012 – 9 only in the Amazonian state of Rondonia. In a preliminary report from CPT, it represents a 24% compared to the 29 killings of 2011. Conflicts over land went from 853 in 2010 to 1035 in 2011, a growth of 21.32%. They are, according to CPT, “conflicts perpetrated by private power – farmers, businessmen, loggers and others. This power is responsible for 689 of 1,035 occurrences of conflicts over land, while the government – evictions and arrests – is responsible for fewer than 100 cases.”

Laisa is in Brasilia, hiding as a refugee in a Convent. The sister of Maria, that now receives death threats, told me that if the new trial remains in Maraba, “with the same judge and the same local society, that believes that environmentalists and union leaders deserve to die, the result will be the same, and they will decide by religion and emotion, not rationality. “The rope always breaks on the side of the weak, the poor, the black, those marginalized by this society. This is the most unjust justice there is.”

Here is a documentary from Felipe on this case:

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