Thursday, April 9, 2009

Brazil court orders jail, retrial in US nun death

A court on Tuesday ordered the arrest and retrial of an Amazon rancher acquitted of orchestrating the murder of American nun and rain forest activist Dorothy Stang.

Para state's top court reversed last year's not-guilty verdict for Vitalmiro Moura on a technicality, ruling that a video used by the defense was not admissible as evidence, the state prosecutor said.

"We're elated and we are convinced we will get a guilty verdict in the new trial," prosecutor Edson Souza told The Associated Press.

Souza said Moura is charged with ordering Stang's murder and that he had yet to be arrested. Calls to Moura's last-known defense attorney were not immediately answered.

Moura is accused of masterminding the 2005 death of the 73-year-old Stang, who was shot six times at close range with a revolver in the small jungle city of Anapu. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Stang spent three decades on the Amazon's wild frontier, working to preserve the rain forest and defend the rights of poor settlers whose lands were seized by powerful ranchers.

Her death prompted Amazon activists _ more than 1,000 of whom have been murdered in the past 20 years _ to demand Brazil's government crack down on the illegal seizing and clearing of rain forest to graze cattle, raise soy crops and harvest timber.

"I am excited that perhaps Dorothy will find justice," David Stang, the nun's brother, wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

David Stang, of Palmer Lake, Colorado, has traveled to Brazil several times to witness the trials. "All of us who love Brazil today are so proud of this great country, as would Dorothy be proud today," he wrote.

Prosecutors contend Moura and rancher Regivaldo Galvao hired gunmen to kill Stang over a disputed plot of land.

Moura has already been tried twice in the case _ Brazil has no double jeopardy law. He was found guilty by a state court in 2007 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. But that ruling was overturned last year after the man who confessed to shooting Stang recanted earlier testimony, insisting that he'd acted alone. Gunman Rayfran das Neves Sales was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

The court ruled on Tuesday that Moura and Sales must be retried because a video that Moura's defense showed the jury was inadmissible.

That video _ depicting Amair Feijoli da Cunha, who was sentenced to 17 years for acting as the middleman between the gunman and the ranchers _ was made while he was in prison and without a judge's approval.

The video, made by the defense team, showed Cunha saying that Moura had nothing to do with the case. He had testified earlier that Moura paid the hired gunmen.

In Moura's first trial, Cunha was expected to act as a witness for the prosecution, but was so badly beaten by a fellow inmate in jail that he wasn't able to attend the trial.

"We got him," federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes said of Moura. "All the lies and fabrications around this case have now died."

Pontes is not involved in the prosecution of Moura's case, but is prosecuting Galvao separately. Pontes fought to have all the cases judged by federal courts, which are widely perceived to be less swayed by local politics than the state courts, which tend to favor the ranchers.

The second rancher, Galvao, was arrested in 2005 but was freed on bail in 2006. Federal prosecutors last month charged him with trying to use falsified documents to obtain the same plot of Amazon rain forest that Stang died trying to defend.

That new charge could undermine one of Galvao's key alibis in the murder case. He has testified he had no interest in the piece of land Stang was defending.

Para court officials said no date has been set for the trials of Moura or Sales.

Pontes warned that the two ranchers might flee before their retrial.

More than 1,100 activists, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers have been killed in land disputes in the past two decades, according to the Catholic Land Pastoral, a Brazil-based watchdog group.

Of those killings, fewer than 100 cases have gone to court. About 80 convicted suspects were hired guns for powerful ranchers and loggers seeking to expand their lands, according to federal prosecutors and the Catholic group.

About 15 of the men who hired them were found guilty, but none is serving a sentence today.

Stang's case was the subject of a documentary film, "They Killed Sister Dorothy," which debuted on HBO last month.