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Brazilian Police Officer Receives Heavy Sentence - 2002-05-23

A Brazilian court has sentenced a second police officer to a lengthy jail term for his role in the massacre of 19 landless peasants six years ago in the eastern state of Para. The verdict is being viewed as a sign that more convictions will follow.

Major Jose Maria Oliveira was sentenced to 158 years in prison, or about eight years for each of the 19 people killed in 1996. However, he was allowed to go free pending appeal.

The verdict late Wednesday, is the third in the trial of 149 police officers accused of firing on protesting farmworkers near the town of Eldorado do Carajas in the state of Para. Last week, the court in the Amazon port city of Belem convicted a police colonel to 228 years in prison, but acquitted a captain. The police colonel also was allowed his freedom while appealing his conviction.

A lawyer for the victim's families, Marcelo Freitas, said they are taking legal action to have the two men jailed while they await the appeals process. But Mr. Freitas welcomed the conviction of Major Oliveira, telling VOA it is a hopeful sign that justice will be done in the remaining cases.

"We believe there is a strong desire for justice on the part of society in Para state, and this is evident by the decisions of the jury which considered the actions by the police as criminal actions. So this means there is a strong tendency to convict the lower ranking officers," he said.

On Monday, 17 policemen will go on trial in Belem, while the remaining 129 will stand trial on June tenth. The trials, which are being widely publicized 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 other two police commanders for insufficient evidence but the verdict was later overturned. A new trial was repeatedly delayed as judges declined to try the controversial case or were accused of bias and removed.