Cablegate: Dorothy Stang's Killer's Freed On Appeal -- Top Brazilian Officials Outraged

DE RUEHBR #0640/01 1331501
R 121501Z MAY 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

B. 06 BRASILIA 1321
C. 06 BRASILIA 914
D. 05 BRASILIA 437 E. 05 BRASILIA 369

Summary -------

1. (SBU) Summary: Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, also known as Bida, was acquitted by a jury of the murder of Dorothy Stang, an American nun and naturalized Brazilian citizen, on May 6, almost exactly a year after his initial conviction. On May 15, 2007, Moura, a Brazilian rancher, was sentenced to 30 years as the mastermind behind the shooting. In Brazil, penal legislation guarantees an automatic appeal of any sentence over twenty years for first-time offenders. Stang was an advocate for sustainable development projects by the poor and worked to halt deforestation by loggers and ranchers. Her efforts earned her the hostility of landowners in the Brazilian state of Para, which is notorious for lawlessness and contract killings. Last year's ruling was considered a landmark decision because of its high-profile and its upending of the tradition of impunity for contractors of hired-killers. There is speculation in the media that Moura bought his freedom on appeal by paying off the convicted gunman, Rayfran das Neves Sales, to change his testimony. Sales, who was also on appeal, was a principal witness against Moura in the first trial. Sales, sentence was upheld by the same jury. Although prosecutors plan to seek to annul the second trial and many in the Brazilian federal government, including President Lula, have been critical of it, the decision reinforces Para state's reputation for lawlessness. End summary.

Background ----------

2. (U) Dorothy Stang, an American-born 73-year old nun with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, had been living in Brazil since the 1970s, helping poor settlers gain land in the Amazon Rain Forest and protecting the environment. She was a naturalized Brazilian citizen, originally from Ohio. She helped build schools and was among the activists who worked to defend the rights of impoverished farmers in the Amazon region. She also attempted to halt the rampant deforestation by loggers and ranchers. Her efforts earned her the enmity of powerful loggers and ranchers in Para, who routinely hire gunmen to harass and even kill settlers who get in their way.

3. (U) At the time of her murder (by seven gunshots), on February 12, 2005, she was campaigning for a sustainable development project on land reform backed by the Federal Government in Anapu, Para state, an isolated community located deep inside the Amazon jungle. The project involved family agricultural production and subsistence level activities with low environmental impact. The project was being developed in an area that ranch owner Moura claimed. She was murdered by gunmen Regivaldo Galvao, Amair Feijoli da Cunha (Tato), Rayfran das Neves Sales, and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista, all hired by Moura (reftels A-E).

The Appeal ----------

4. (U) During the two-day appeal, Sales recanted his previous testimony and stated that the weapon that he used to kill Stang was not provided by Moura according to press reports. Nonetheless, the jury's decision caused immediate outrage by courtroom observers composed of lawyers and human rights activists, forcing Judge Raimundo Alves Flexa to interrupt final statements twice to call for silence. Without Sales' testimony implicating Moura, Moura's attorney successfully argued that there was not sufficient evidence to convict his client, despite attempts by the prosecution to demonstrate that Moura planned to pay Sales and the others to kill Stang. After making his oral arguments, the prosecutor, Edson Souza, mentioned that he and his family had been repeatedly threatened for over a year while working on the case. The judge simply pointed out that a democratic state works this way and that the jury's decision must be respected. The Public Ministry (prosecution) announced that it would seek to have the second trial annulled.

The Other Killers -----------------

5. (U) In December 2005, a jury in Para state convicted Sales to 27 years, and his partner, Batista, to 18 years. Feijoli Da Cunha was also convicted to 27 years in prison for having acted as a middleman in the killing, but his sentence was reduced to 18 years because of a plea bargain in which he provided information about the other offenders. The fourth accused, Galvao, is still awaiting trial.

6. (U) The Embassy has followed the case closely. FBI agents participated in the early stages of the investigation, and Sales and Batista were indicted for murder by a Washington, D.C. grand jury on June 21, 2005. Embassy officials have met regularly with Brazilian officials in Belem and Brasilia to express our strong interest in the case, and post's Consular Agent in Belem, Para's capital, has been monitoring the events as they unfold, including attending this trial.

Land Disputes and Impunity --------------------------

7. (U) Intimidation and killings of rural labor rights leaders continue to be a problem in Brazil. The Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission's (CPT) lawyer Joao Batista Afonso said that this case reinforces Para's deserved reputation for impunity: in over 800 rural murders committed in the past 35 years in the state, not a single person has been convicted or punished for ordering killings. CPT reported that 25 people were killed in land conflicts last year, and has repeatedly stated that rural violence is increasing due to impunity. Throughout Brazil over the past 20 years approximately 1,100 conflicts were registered with almost 1,500 deaths, of which only 85 were taken to trial. Seventy-one murderers were convicted, but only 19 were found guilty of having ordered killings.

8. (U) Local press report strong government reaction against the decision noting that Supreme Court President Celso de Mello said that the decision could stain the image of Brazil's Justice System, Human Rights Secretary Paulo Vannuchi "vehemently" disagreed with the decision, and Brazil's Bar Association (OAB) president said that the acquittal was a "very bad" signal. Vannuchi also reported as saying that it "reinforces the feeling of impunity that is so widespread in our country, opening a road to more crime and violence." Even President Lula is quoted as saying "as a Brazilian and common citizen" he is "indignant with the result," although "as President of the Republic I don't make comments on the decision of a judicial proceeding." "Let's see what is going to happen. I think that this speaks a bit against Brazil's image abroad."

9. (U) Stang's brother, David Stang, who arrived for the trial last week, was incredulous when the ruling was delivered. According to press reports he said, "I'm a rational person. How could this happen? It's as if those killed are to continue suffering." He praised that prosecution saying that their arguments were outstanding and even stronger than when Moura was convicted last year. "I'm profoundly shocked," he said. 10. (SBU) Comment: Moura's previous conviction was a bright spot in, and seemed to be a turning point for, the justice system in a state notorious for lawlessness and impunity. It also created hope that Brazil's poor history of prosecutions of land owners who order killings might be coming to an end. In the best case, the decision represents only a temporary setback that may well be reversed on further appeal by the Public Ministry. If allowed to stand, however, the decision could embolden other landowners in rural disputes with indigenous (septel) and other groups to take matters into their own hands. The strong outcry from the highest levels of the GOB is a positive sign. Post will continue to express our interest in the case and monitor the situation. End Comment.


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