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Brazil Massacre Acquittals Continue to Generate Strong Reaction - 2002-06-17

In Brazil, reactions continue on the court acquittal last week of 124 military policemen accused of involvement in the massacre of 19 landless peasants six years ago in the northern Amazon state of Para. Domestic and international human rights groups are calling for changes in national legislation to more effectively investigate human rights crimes and to bring perpetrators of abuses to justice.

It was the largest trial in modern Brazilian history. In several sessions that began in May, a court in the Amazon port city of Belem tried 142 military policemen for their role in the April, 1996 massacre of 19 landless farmworkers.

The killings occurred when police opened fire on about 1,000 farmworkers who were blocking a highway in Eldorado do Carajas in the state of Para. The farmworkers, who were organized by the militant Movement of Landless Rural Workers, or MST, had blocked the highway to press their demands for land. In addition to those killed, 60 other farmworkers were wounded.

The court in Belem convicted two military police commanders for the part they played in the massacre, and sentenced them to long jail terms. But the rest of the defendants were acquitted, in what both domestic and international human rights groups say was a travesty of justice.

For the Rio-based group, Global Justice, the results of the trial were predictable because authorities failed from the start to gather the necessary evidence to prosecute the police officers who fired into the crowd. Global Justice head Jim Cavallaro says a number of things were not done.

"One, you need the weapons' registries, and that means you need to know who was using which weapon so that afterwards you can run ballistic tests to determine that a particular bullet found in the head of a particular victim was fired by a particular gun which was used by a particular defendant," he said. "In the police barracks, those registries disappeared a day or two after the crime. Another important piece of evidence is the gunpowder test that is done to see whether there are any remains of gunpowder on the hands of police officers. If that is done in the hours after the incident, then you know which police officers fired their weapons and which ones did not. That was not done. You also seize the officers' uniforms to determine whether there were bloodstains on those uniforms, and whether those bloodstains correspond to the blood of particular victims. That was not done."

Because of this, Mr. Cavallaro adds, the mass acquittal last week of 124 defendants came as no surprise. For Amnesty International, the failure to gather evidence properly is indicative of a cover up. In a statement, Amnesty said the Eldorado do Carajas trial exposed what it called the "deep flaws" in the justice system in the Brazilian state of Para. Amnesty's Brazil researcher Tim Cahill says what happened in Para is an example of a weak state judicial system that fosters impunity for human rights crimes.

"Continually we are confronted by the fact that state justice seems to be unable to deal with the human rights abuses that are committed by state agents. Time and time again we find that police investigations are corrupt, inept and do not do anything short of covering up evidence, which often indicates involvement of police agents in killings as was the case in Eldorado do Carajas," he said. "One also has to question the length of time that judicial processes have taken, regularly taking years…. So once again our concern is that the judicial system in the state has not shown itself competent enough to provide the country with the human rights and justice that it requires."

The Brazilian government agrees with this assessment. The Human Rights Secretariat of Brazil's Ministry of Justice has issued a statement condemning the results of the Eldorado do Carajas trial. The statement said the way the trial was carried out causes deep concern and doubts over the legal procedures.

The head of the Secretariat, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, told the Globo newspaper that the acquittal underscores the need for new laws to allow the federal government to investigate and prosecute human rights crimes.

Mr. Cavallaro of Global Justice agrees. "To avoid this kind of situation in the future and this is something that we have been calling for and many human rights groups have been calling for," he said, "it is really fundamental that particular kinds of human rights violations be classified as federal violations, so that the federal police who tend to be more independent, more professional, and better equipped could have entered in this case, done the research so that the case could have been handled by federal prosecutors and brought before a federal judge, under federal law. If that had been done in this case, we think the result would have been different."

Legislation to do this is now before the Brazilian Congress. Amnesty International supports the legislation, and calls for prompt action.

The Eldorado do Carajas trial was widely publicized in Brazil, and abroad and once again drew attention to the human rights situation in Brazil. Amnesty International's Tim Cahill says while the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has done much to improve Brazil's human rights image, there has been little concrete progress.

"We welcome the fact that over the last seven years the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso has adopted a very strong human rights dialogue and has tried on the international stage to ensure that its human rights image has been strong," he said. "Always ratifying the treaties where necessary and always trying to ensure that in terms of the U-N debate it has maintained an open and honest dialogue about the reality that exists in Brazil. However, the problem that we have continually found that for all its debate and for all its rhetoric internationally, the reality in Brazil has not changed."

Brazil's Human Rights Secretary Pinheiro says the international repercussions from the Eldorado do Carajas trial will be the worst possible for Brazil's image abroad. He expressed hope the acquittals can be reversed.

For now that appears difficult, though not impossible. In the first Eldorado do Carajas trial in August 1999, a court acquitted the three police commanders for insufficient evidence. The verdict was later overturned and after many delays the new trial was convened, which led to the conviction of two of the commanders. A small but important victory, human rights groups say, for justice.