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Brazilian Court Exonerates Policemen for Their Role in 1996 Massacre - 2002-06-13

A Brazilian court has acquitted 124 policemen for their role in the massacre of 19 landless peasants six years ago in the northern Amazon state of Para. Wednesday's acquittal is the largest in the trial of the 149 military policemen accused of involvement in the killings.

A court in the Amazon port city of Belem Wednesday handed down the acquittals. A seven-member jury accepted the arguments of defense lawyers that the 124 military policemen acted in self-defense against the farm workers.

The incident took place in April 1996, when police opened fire on about 1,000 landless farm workers who were blocking a highway in Eldorado do Carajas in the state of Para. Along with the 19 people killed, about 60 others were wounded.

Last month, two police commanders were convicted for the killings, and sentenced to long jail terms. But Wednesday's acquittal of the 124 brought a quick denunciation from human rights groups.

James Cavallaro of the Rio-based group, Global Justice, says authorities failed from the start to gather the evidence necessary to prosecute the police officers who fired into the crowd. Given that, Mr. Cavallaro said, Wednesday's acquittal was no surprise.

He said, "We knew all along that when the trial eventually occurred, now some six years after the fact, that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to individualize the responsibility of the 124 defendants to the extent that would allow for their prosecution in accordance with the law. So we're not surprised by the verdict but we're clearly disappointed."

In all, 149 military police have been put on trial for the Eldorado do Carajas massacre considered one of the worst human rights violations in recent Brazilian history. The first trial, in August 1999, ended with the acquittal of the police commanders for insufficient evidence. But the verdict was overturned following a domestic and international outcry, and a new trial was ordered.

Mr. Cavallaro said even with the conviction of two police commanders last month the new trial failed to bring justice. "When we do have a small advance, such as the conviction of two of the officers involved, yes we recognize that it's a minor step forward, a minor advance in the fight against impunity. But on the whole," he continued, "I think the evaluation of the investigation, prosecution, and final determination of the juries in this case would be on the whole negative."

The last three policemen of the group of 149 are to go on trial later this month. The prosecution says it will appeal Wednesday's verdict.