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Brazilian Policeman on Trial for Peasant Massacre - 2002-05-21

In Brazil, the trial of a third police officer accused of participating in the massacre of 19 landless peasants six years ago is under way in a court in the northern Amazon state of Para. The trial is part of a legal process against 149 policemen involved in one of the worst human rights violations in Brazil in recent years.

Major Jose Maria Oliveira is standing trial for his role in the massacre, which took place in 1996 in Eldorado do Carajas, a remote area in the state of Para.

Major Oliveira was in charge of one of the military police units sent to disperse more than one thousand landless farmworkers who were blocking a highway to press their demands for land. In the confrontation, police opened fire killing 19 people and wounding 80 others.

Last week, a court in the Amazon port city of Belem sentenced police commander Mario Pantoja to 228 years in prison for the crime. But it acquitted a second police officer, Captain Raimundo Almendra.

Lawyer Marcelo Freitas, who represents the families of the victims, said the prosecution will press hard for a conviction of Major Oliveira.

"We are going to further refine our arguments for the prosecution, and we will be more prepared and organized to deal with the arguments of the defense that led to the acquittal of Captain Almendra. We will make a strong attack and we're confident that Major Oliveira will be convicted," he said.

Major Oliveira's defense lawyers are expected to argue he arrived late on the scene, after the shooting had started.

In all, 149 policemen are charged with the crime. The remaining 146 defendants will be tried in separate sessions later this month and in early June.

The trials, which have generated widespread publicity in Brazil, are being seen by human rights groups as a test of the willingness of Brazilian authorities to prosecute police accused of human rights violations. In August 1999, a court in Para acquitted Major Oliveira and the two other police commanders for insufficient evidence. The verdict was later overturned and a new trial was ordered following a domestic and international outcry.