IMAGE: Vitalmiro Bastos Moura
Andre Penner  /  AP
Vitalmiro Bastos Moura, in court Monday in Belem, northern Brazil, is one of two ranchers accused of ordering the 2005 killing of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang in a dispute over land.
updated 5/14/2007 4:15:41 PM ET 2007-05-14T20:15:41

A rancher pleaded not guilty Monday to ordering the killing of American nun who died while trying to save the Amazon rain forest in a case that human rights activists see as a test of Brazil’s commitment to halting violence over land.

Vitalmiro Bastos Moura is one of two ranchers accused of ordering the Feb. 12, 2005, murder of Dorothy Stang, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Dayton, Ohio, in a conflict over land he wanted to log and develop.

“I had no participation whatsoever,” Moura, 36, told the judge in his opening statement, adding that he didn’t even know Stang, who had been active in organizing poor settlers around the jungle town of Anapu for the last 23 years of her life.

Stang, 73, was killed by six shots fired at close range on a muddy patch of road in the Amazon state of Para. She helped build schools and taught settlers to defend their rights and to respect the rain forest, earning the enmity of powerful men who hoped to exploit it.

A gunman, his accomplice and a go-between have been convicted in the killing. The men, who are expected to testify, alleged that Moura and fellow rancher Regivaldo Galvao offered them $25,000 to kill Stang.

Wearing a black shirt and jeans, Moura defiantly told prosecutors he learned of the killing only after the gunmen fled to his ranch. He said he told them to leave and did not call police because doing so would only bring him trouble.

Explains reason for flight
Moura also said he fled for 45 days shortly after Stang’s death because police gave him no chance to explain himself without being arrested.

Human rights defenders said the trial could become a landmark case because of the difficulty of convicting the masterminds of crimes in Para.

In the past 30 years, 1,237 rural workers, union leaders and activists have been killed in Brazilian land disputes. Of those killings, 772 took place in Para, and only four alleged “mandantes,” or masterminds, have stood trial. All four were convicted, but none is behind bars.

“This case is emblematic of the problems facing the Amazon region,” said Darci Frigo, a lawyer for the Brazilian group Land of Rights.

The case drew international attention and comparisons to the 1988 killing of the environmental activist Chico Mendes. Shortly after his killing, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva ordered the army into the region, suspended logging permits, and ordered large swaths of rain forest off-limits to development.

Still, it was unclear whether the same attention would be paid to less-prominent victims.

“We’re worried about how much popular opinion is weighing on the judgment. If you take Dorothy and all the international attention she brings off the scale, will justice work for everyone?” said Jeffery Hsu, of the Washington law firm Heller Ehrman, who is advising her relatives on a pro-bono basis.

Volatile land of inequities
Brazil has one of the world’s widest gaps between rich and poor, with 3.5 percent of landowners holding 56 percent of the arable land, and the poorest 40 percent owning just 1 percent. Given that police and judges usually do the bidding of the rich and powerful, those inequalities have proven explosive.

Stang’s brother, David, who was attending the trial with his twin brother, Thomas, said he was worried about the outcome of the case.

“I’m concerned there’s a different climate in the courtroom than at the earlier trials. Obviously, it’s easier to take down the littler guys, the gunmen. But it’s obvious this guy (Moura) has money and power and he’s not afraid,” Stang said. “He’s standing up and telling the prosecutors he knows nothing.”

Galvao is considerably richer and better connected than Moura, and he was freed from jail while his pretrial motions work their way through the legal system. No trial date has been set.

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