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Brazilian Police Officer Gets 228 Years in Prison For 1996 Massacre - 2002-05-17

A Brazilian court has sentenced a police commander to 228 years in prison for his role in the massacre of 19 peasants six years ago in the eastern Amazon state of Para.

A court in the Amazon port city of Belem Thursday sentenced Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pantoja to 12 years in prison for each of the 19 peasants killed.

Pantoja was in charge when police opened fire on a group of more than 1,000 landless farmworkers who were blocking a highway in Eldorado do Carajas, in the state of Para. Aside from those killed, 80 others were wounded.

Pantoja, Major Jose Maria Oliveira and Captain Raimundo Almendra were the first of 149 policemen to stand trial for the killings. The court Thursday acquitted Captain Almendra and rescheduled the trial for Major Oliveira for next Tuesday.

This is the second time the three have been put on trial. In August 1999, a court acquitted the three men for insufficient evidence, a verdict that was later overturned after raising a huge outcry both domestically and internationally.

A lawyer representing the families of the victims expressed satisfaction over the sentence handed down for Pantoja. But lawyer Marcelo Freitas tells VOA he is dismayed that Captain Almendra was acquitted.

"We're satisfied with the sentence for commander Mario Pantoja, we think the punishment is compatible with the crimes committed," he said. "But we're dissatisfied with the acquittal of Captain Almendra. He should have been punished because he assumed the command of the forces on the ground, so he contributed in the same way as Pantoja to these crimes."

However, the jury decided by a vote of four to three that the captain did not bear as much responsibility for the crimes as Pantoja.

Pantoja will appeal his sentence, and the court decided to let him keep his freedom during the appeal process, an action that was denounced by lawyer Freitas.

"We believe this decision is absurd, and because of this he will delay the process for as long as he can," said Mr. Freitas. "Once he reaches the age of 70, he cannot under Brazilian law serve his sentence in prison."

The Eldorado do Carajas trial has received widespread publicity in Brazil, and is being seen by human rights groups as a test of the willingness of Brazilian authorities to prosecute police.

The remaining 146 defendants will be tried in separate sessions later this month and in early June.