A Brazilian rancher was convicted Tuesday of ordering the killing of an American nun and rain forest defender in a case seen as an important test of justice in the largely lawless Amazon region. A judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura "showed a violent personality unsuited to living in society," the judge said in sentencing him to the maximum penalty for the 2005 slaying of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang.
The "killing was carried out in violent and cowardly manner," Judge Raymond Moises Alves Flexa said.
Stang's brother David, who flew to Brazil for the two-day trial, trembled and wept after the verdict. "Justice was done," he said, adding that he now believed another rancher also accused of ordering his sister's killing may be convicted when he goes to trial later this year.
Stang, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Dayton, Ohio, helped build schools and was among the activists who worked to defend the rights of impoverished and exploited farmers drawn to the Amazon region. She also attempted to halt the rampant jungle clearing by loggers and ranchers that has destroyed some 20 percent of the forest cover.
Tuesday's verdict came after three other men convicted in connection with the killing — a gunman, his accomplice and a go-between — recanted earlier testimony that Moura had offered them $25,000 to kill Stang in a conflict over land he wanted to log and develop.
Human rights defenders said the trial was a key measure of whether the powerful masterminds behind land-related killings can be held accountable in the Amazon state of Para. Of nearly 800 such killings during the past 30 years, only four masterminds have been convicted and none are behind bars.
Shortly after Stang's killing, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva ordered the army into the region, suspended logging permits and ordered large swathes of rain forest off-limits to development.
Moura denied ordering the killing during the trial, and his lawyer mounted a lengthy anti-American tirade in his closing arguments, calling Stang "the fruit of a poisoned tree."
Accusing the United States of crimes ranging from atom bombs dropped on Japan during World War II to the treatment of prisoners at its Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, defense attorney Americo Leal said Stang "shares this DNA of violence, the DNA to kill."
"The victim didn't stop practicing her criminal activity and she died as a result of the violence she tried to implant," he said.
Defense offers ‘fantasy world’
David Stang expressed dismay.
"The trial's about Bida, Dorothy was the victim," Stang said, referring to Moura by his nickname. "So this fantasy world the defense lawyers are trying to create only maintains this cycle of killings."
On Monday, Moura denied he ordered Stang's killing, maintaining he did not even know the nun, who had been organizing poor settlers around the jungle town of Anapu for 23 years.
"This thing about money isn't true. This thing about me and Bida talking isn't true," Clodoaldo Carlos Batista said Monday, in recanting his earlier testimony implicating Moura.
Batista, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison as an accomplice to gunman Rayfran Neves Sales, claimed he had been coerced into implicating Moura by two American FBI agents who traveled to Brazil shortly after the murder to monitor the police investigation.
Both Batista and Sales, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison, claimed the agents threatened to send them to the United States, where they could face the death penalty if they did not cooperate. Brazil does not have the death penalty and the most a convict can serve at a single stretch is 30 years.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said Brazil does not allow the extradition of its citizens to other countries for crimes committed in Brazil.