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One More Step Towards Justice in the Case of Sister Dorothy

June 2006

On April 26, Amair Feijoli da Cunha was sentenced to 18 years in prison for facilitating the hiring of the two murderers of Sister Dorothy Stang, a North American nun who spent the last four decades working with community groups in the Amazon to defend the economic, cultural and social rights of peasants and small-scale farmers. In the first day of his trial, Amair confessed that he hired Rayfan das Neves and Clodoaldo Batista with the support of two wealthy landowners in the region of Anapu, Brazil. The landowners– Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura e Regivaldo “Bida” Galvão–are currently under trial for their role as authors of the murder.

“Do you have the courage to kill Dorothy? If you have, Bida can pay R$ 50,000.” — Amair da Cunha to the assassins of Sister Dorothy

The trial of Amair da Cunha was a victory for peasants and human rights organizations in the Brazilian Amazon. Rede Social, a Grassroots International partner, has followed the case since the trial of Rayfan and Clodoaldo. They have collected testimonies and evidence about the case and worked directly with the prosecution throughout the case.

For less than US$ 22,000, Neves and Batista killed Sister Dorothy on a back road in the Amazon region. On that morning, she was accompanied by two other local organizers who escaped through the woods. Her death is just one more example of of a long history of human rights violations against peasants and local organizers. The prosecution of her murderers is a crucial step on the road to justice in Brazil.

The work of Sister Dorothy, as local organizer, was also crucial to the land rights of peasants and small-scale farmers that she worked with, and throughout Brazil. The support of Sister Dorothy to the work of local organizers gave visibility to the struggle of families to protect the forest and their livelihoods.

For some, the work of Sister Dorothy brought too much visibility to the social and environmental injustice in Anapu region. A week before, she had met Brazil’s National Secretary for Human Rights in Brasília to denounce the humiliations, death threats and killings in Anapu. Dorothy was a real problem.

“Until we get rid of this woman, we won’t have peace in this place” said Regivaldo Galvão to Amair.

Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura and Regivaldo Galvão are also involved in other crimes, including slavery. According to the 2005 report of Pastoral Land Commission, Viltamiro had 20 people working under conditions of slavery and Regivaldo still has 13 people, including two minors. From the total of 2,476 cases of slavery, only 1,043 people were freed in 2004 in the state of Pará. Powerful people like Vitalmiro and Regivaldo have bought their impunity through a vast network of judges, politicians and government officials.

This systemic violence and impunity are rooted in the land occupation and development process at work in the Amazon. Indigenous people and forest dwellers are constantly pushed off of their land because of the rural development policies based on logging and cattle raising farms. Sister Dorothy and members of her congregation have been strong advocates of a different model of development, based on the needs and human rights of small producers.

As exciting as it is to see the progress in the Dorothy Stang case, the human rights situation for land-rights activists in the region is grave. Pará, a state that is twice the size of Texas, is considered an outlaw region. It is ruled by those who own the most land. Corruption has infiltrated deep in the state government and state justice department. Considering the example of the long trial of the murderers of Chico Mendes in 1988, imprisonment and trial of ringleaders in Brazil are rare, even in cases that are internationally famous. According to the Brazilian newsweekly ISTOé, only five ringleaders were prosecuted in Pará from 1985 to 2003.

For comparison, from January to November of 2005, sixteen people were murdered because of land conflicts in Pará –43% of registered land-related murder cases in the nation, according to the Pastoral Land Commission. In the same town that Sister Dorothy was assassinated, two other local organizers were killed within three days. At this point, more than a year later, the police still haven’t named any suspects for these crimes.

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