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Brazil Again Tries Policemen in Peasant Massacre

In Brazil, 149 policemen stand accused of massacring 19 landless peasants six years ago in the northern Amazon state of Para in their second trial in three years.

The first trial in August 1999 ended with the acquittal of the three police commanders who were in charge of an operation in which police gunned down 19 landless peasants on April 17, 1996. The incident took place in Eldorado do Carajas as police attempted to disperse more than 1,000 landless peasants who were blocking a major highway.

The acquittal of the three police officers caused a domestic and international uproar, and the verdict was overturned less than a year later. After several postponements, a new trial opened Tuesday in the state capital of Para, Belem.

But this second trial is embroiled in controversy. Judge Roberto Moura is the sixth judge to preside over the case, after five of his predecessors - including one last week - withdrew.

Also, the activist group representing landless peasants, the Movement of Land-less Rural Workers (MST), is boycotting the trial. It claims the presiding judge is biased in favor of the defense and wants the case to be tried in a federal court, not in a state court.

Brazilian human rights groups also are expressing concern about the fairness of the trial. Activist James Cavallaro, who heads the group Global Justice, says the withdrawal of five judges is a bad sign, calling the case a "political hot potato."

"The judges in Para state no doubt are feeling the pressure from large landowners. Para is a large state, probably about the size of Texas in the United States. It is a state that is largely run by large landowners who have enormous powers not only with the executive and legislative branches, but with the judicial branch as well," he continued. "So a lot of the judges who are on the ground do not want to be the judges responsible for convicting the military police officers who committed this grave human rights violation but who are seen by large landowners as being there to protect their interests."

The same three police commanders who were acquitted in 1999 will be the first to be tried.

The trial of the 149 policemen is expected to last several weeks, and is the biggest of its kind in modern Brazilian history.