Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2004 - Brazil

Assassination of three workers' rights lawyers47

On 28 January 2004, Mesrrs. Erastótenes de Almeida Gonçalves, Nelson José da Silva and João Batista Soares Lages, three lawyers from the Brazilian Labour Ministry in Unaí, State of Minas Gerais, were shot dead in the head by strangers driving a Fiat Strada.

They were at the time heading for the estates of a big landowner (fazendeiro) in Minais Gerais State, in order to investigate a slavery case. Mr. Aílton Pereira de Oliveira, their driver, was seriously wounded, and died a few hours later in the hospital in Brasília.

On 25 and 26 July 2004, following an investigation conducted jointly by the federal, civil and military police forces and the federal public Prosecutor department, six suspects were arrested: Mr. Francisco Elder Pinheiro, believed to have hired the killers; the three hired killers themselves, Mesrrs. Erinaldo de Vasconcelos Silva, Rogério Alan Rocha Rios and William Gomes de Miranda; and two alleged intermediaries who are thought to have made the payments, Mr. Hugo Alves Pimenta and Mr. José Alberto de Castro. Thanks to a link established between Pimenta and the Mânica brothers, big agricultural producers in the region, Mr. Norberto Mânica was identified as having ordered the assassinations of the three civil servants, of whom one – Mr. Nelson José da Silva – had imposed a fine on him for failure to observe proper working conditions on his estates. Mr. Norberto Mânica was arrested on 13 August 2004 and was also accused of having threatened civil servants from the Ministry of Labour in December 2003. In addition, he was still facing charges relating to the violation of employees' rights, as does his brother, Antério Mânica, who was elected mayor of Unaí in October 2004.

On 10 December 2004, Judge Francisco de Assis Betti of the 9th federal court of Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais State) decided that all the defendants (except Mr. Humbeto Ribeiro dos Santos) should be tried by a popular jury for homicide" and "forming a criminal group". Other landowners in the region might also be implicated in the assassination. Mr. Antério Mânica was allowed to take up his position as a mayor in January 2005, and this new status may force changes in how the case proceeds against him, in that civil officials are permitted to have their cases heard, in the first instance, by the State High Court (Tribunal de Justiça) rather than before a popular jury.

Since these events, inspectors of the Ministry of Labour in the region have been carrying out their work under police protection.

Sentences confirmed for those behind the assassination of Mr. João Canuto de Oliveira48

On 23 May 2003, Mr. Adilson Laranjeira, former mayor of Rio Maria, and Mr. Vantuir de Paula, a farmer, were sentenced to 19 years and 10 months in prison by the popular court of Belém (Tribunal de Júri Popular de Belém), for having ordered the assassination of Mr. João Canuto de Oliveira, chairman of the Trade Union of Rio Maria Rural Workers, in 1985.

However, the judge decided to let the convicted free and to await the result of the appeal proceedings in accordance with the Fleury Act (1973), by which a person convicted for the first time may be set free while the appeal pending. Moreover, the Court of Justice of Pará (Tribunal de Justiça do Estado do Pará – TJE) refused to organise an appeal case heard by a jury.

Mr. Adilson Laranjeira and Mr. Vantuir de Paula lodged a request for the original sentence to be overturned. This request was unanimously rejected by the TJE on 14 September 2004.

On 8 October 2004, the convicted appealed this decision with the High Court of Justice (Superior Tribunal de Justiça) and the Federal Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal), in Brasília.

In December 2004, the appeal was still pending.

Assassination of Mr. Ribamar Francisco dos Santos49

On 7 February 2004, Mr. Ribamar Francisco dos Santos, agrarian policy coordinator for the Trade Union of Rural Workers (Sindicato de Trabalhadores Rurais – STR) in Rondon do Pará, was shot dead in front of his home with two bullets in the head by two strangers. Mr. dos Santos had received threats for several weeks before his murder and his name had been added to a "death list". These facts had been reported to the authorities, but the security forces had offered him no protection.

At the end of 2004, the police had still not identified those responsible for the killing.

Since Mr. dos Santos's assassination, two other trade union leaders from STR-Rondon received death threats, often through anonymous phone calls. This was notably the case of Mrs. Maria Joelma Dias da Costa, chairwoman of the union and widow of Mr. José Dutra da Costa, former chairman of STR-Rondon, who was assassinated on 21 November 2000. Her name was also on the "death list" and she was regularly subjected to threats. Moreover, although her husband's murderer, Mr. Wellington de Jesus Silva, was detained in the Marabá prison, Pará State, the man believed to have ordered the killing, the fazendeiro José Décio Barroso Nunes, was held for 13 days and then released before evidence against him could be properly examined.

Defenders of land rights threatened, harrassed and assassinated50

In certain Brazilian States, the agrarian issue remains particularly worrying. The situation grows worse with the existence of private militias working for some of the fazendeiros. In 2004, the number of peasants and rural leaders killed remained one of the highest in Latin America, and impunity increased the climate of insecurity suffered by human rights defenders: between 1985 and 2003, out of 1,349 cases of murders linked to the struggle for land access, only 75 went to court.

On 29 January 2004, Mr. Ezequiel de Moraes Nascimento, chairman of the Workers' Association of Santa Maria das Barreiras, was assassinated by two men at his home in Redenção (Pará State), in front of his wife and seven-year-old daughter. Mr. Nascimento had spoken out against the violence perpetrated by some of the region's fazendeiros, and had already received death threats. At the end of 2004, the investigation conducted by the state authorities had produced no result.

On 23 March 2004, Mr. Epitácio Gomes da Silva, head of the Independent Peasants' Movement (Movimiento de Trabalhadores Rurais Independentes – MTRI), was assassinated in the town of Tailândia, Pará State. He had been coordinating a peasant action in preparation of a peaceful occupation of unexploited land. At the end of 2004, the Pará State had not revealed the results of the investigation.

From 3 to 9 June 2004, an international mission to investigate agrarian reform and human rights was conducted in Brazil, under the auspices of two international organizations for the defence of peasants' rights, Vía Campesina and FoodFirst Information & Action Network (FIAN). Some members of the mission were attacked by a fazendeiro, who fired on them near the town of Montes Claros, Minas Gerais State. This man received a long prison sentence, but was then released in accordance with the Fleury Act (1973).

On 20 November 2004, a camp of the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST), called Promised Land in Felisburgo, Jequitinhonha Valley, one of the poorest regions in Minas Gerais State, was attacked. Five landless peasants, who were among those responsible for organizing the camp, were killed, and 20 others were wounded.

[Refworld note: This report as posted on the FIDH website (www.fidh.org) was in pdf format with country chapters run together by region. Footnote numbers have been retained here, so do not necessarily begin at 1.]

47. See Press Release, 30 January 2004 and Open Letter to the Brazilian authorities, 30 December 2004.

48. See Press release, 7 April 2004; Open Letter to the Brazilian authorities, 30 December 2004; 2003 Annual Report; and report of the Observatory's judicial observation mission of 22-23 May 2003, Trial of those behind the murder of João Canuto de Oliveira – Landless People and their defenders in the State of Pará.

49. See Press release, 7 April 2004.

50. See Open Letter to the Brazilian authorities, 30 December 2004.


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