Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Brazil's Activists Fear Death Squads Back

Brazil's Activists Fear Death Squads Back

By Michael Astor

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Abaetetuba, Brazil - Bishop Flavio Giovenale was crushed by the acquittal last week of a rancher accused of ordering the killing of a crusading American nun - and not just because he admired Dorothy Stang.

Giovenale, who spends much of his time battling child prostitution, police corruption and drug abuse, fears the verdict means it's open season again on activists in the Amazon jungle state of Para.

The Italian priest has long received death threats for his denouncement of the organized crime he says carries more weight than the law in Abaetetuba, a teeming Amazon River port city where trucks barrel past hauling rain forest hardwood. During his three decades in Brazil, he has tried to ignore them.

But since rancher Vitalmiro Moura walked free after a retrial last week, Giovenale fears the wealthy and shadowy business interests driving deforestation of the Amazon will be emboldened to order his killing.

Last year, Moura was sentenced to 30 years in prison for ordering the killing of Stang, a 73-year-old nun from Dayton, Ohio, in a ruling seen as a watershed event ending impunity in a region where community organizers, union leaders and clergy are routinely marked for death.

For Giovenale, Stang was a hero for devoting her life to helping the poor farm without deforesting in a region plagued by wanton environmental destruction, land grabbing, contract killings, slave-like labor and rampant child prostitution.

"The acquittal showed they could kill a famous person like Dorothy, so they certainly wouldn't think twice about killing an unknown bishop like me," he said.

To many Amazon entrepreneurs, people like Stang, Giovenale and others who help the Amazon's poor are interlopers preventing Latin America's largest nation from using the rain forest's natural riches to generate wealth and jobs.

Under a conspiracy theory commonly accepted in Brazil, the nonprofit Amazon groups are actually fronts for foreign nations that want to invade the region, or at least prevent it from developing so Brazil won't become a world power.

"A certain layer of the elite" in Para state regard Moura as the victim and Stang as the villain, said Gov. Ana Julia Carepa. She cautioned other politicians against using Moura's acquittal to revive their public rhetoric against environmental and human rights activists.

Before her 2005 killing, Stang was accused of arms trafficking and declared unwelcome by the mayor of Anapu, the hardscrabble town where she was gunned down. Giovenale said many candidates for mayor in the region made getting rid of Stang part of their stump speeches.

"She said the following: 'Even with guns in our hands it is necessary that we raise ourselves to level of the powerful and seize their land,'" said Paulo Dias, one of Moura's lawyers. "That was her doctrine. Her philosophy was violence."

Carepa disagreed.

"I knew Sister Dorothy and there isn't even a shadow of an indication that she was violent," the governor said. "It's a regrettable decision that shows the fragility of our judiciary system."

Prosecutors claim Moura ordered Stang killed in a dispute over a piece of land she wanted to preserve and Moura wanted cut down for development.

Moura contends police pinned the crime on him because the gunman and his accomplice ran to a house he owns after the shooting and because activists pressured prosecutors to blame someone in addition to the confessed gunman, Rayfran das Neves Sales.

Last week, he told The Associated Press, justice was finally done. He expects a hero's welcome from well-heeled ranchers, farmers and other friends when he returns to his hometown of Altamira this week.

"The calls I'm getting, all the time now, are people saying they want to receive me with open arms," Moura said.

But prosecutor Edson Souza, who said he would appeal Moura's acquittal, said the decision will have disastrous consequences for activists in the Amazon.

"People who work to raise the consciousness, organize and lead the people will be increasingly targeted by those interests that want to kill them," he said.

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