Brazil: Four Sentenced in Human Rights Case

Article excerpt

A federal judge sentenced four men to 14 years in prison for setting fire to an Indian leader in 1997 in a widely watched case heavy with racial and class implications.

Galdino Jesus dos Santos, a 45-year-old Pataxo Indian leader from the northeastern state of Bahia, was doused with alcohol and set on fire as he slept on a bench at a bus stop in Brasilia on April 20, 1997 (see NotiSur, 1997-05-02). He died less than 24 hours later with burns over 95% of his body.

Galdino had been in Brasilia to push for the legal demarcation of his tribe's traditional lands in Bahia. He was sleeping on the bench because he had been locked out of his boarding house.

A witness noted the license plate of the car in which the men drove away after the incident, and police arrested them the same day.

Killing was for amusement

After a four-day trial, the jury voted four to three to convict Max Rogerio Alves, Antonio Novely Cardoso, and Eron Chaves de Oliveira, all 23 years old, and 22-year-old Tomas Oliveira de Almeida of intentional homicide in the death of Galdino. The jury found that the young men, all from prominent and prosperous families, acted "with cruelty, without giving the victim any chance to defend himself, and solely for the amusement of watching someone be burned alive."

The defense argued that the defendants, out joyriding after a night partying, set the Indian leader ablaze as an adolescent prank, but did not intend to kill him. However, the jury rejected the defense's arguments and its premise that the crime was one of bodily injury followed by death, a lesser crime.

Judge Sandra de Santis of the Federal District Justice Court read the sentence on Nov. 10. She had considered a 15-year sentence for each of the accused, but reduced it to 14 years because the four defendants were under 21 when they committed the crime. A fifth youth who participated in the murder was not tried because he was 17 years old when the crime occurred.

In Brazil, people under 18 are not held legally responsible for their criminal acts, but must go through a rehabilitation process. If the crime is serious, they may be temporarily held in special institutions for juvenile offenders.

Once the sentence is published in the official gazette, the defense has five days to appeal. The four cannot be released on bail during the appeal process. Because they have no prior criminal record, they can apply for parole after completing two-thirds of their sentence. The four years they have spent in jail since the murder occurred will count toward their sentence. Defense lawyer Raul Livino said the jury's finding was contrary to the evidence, and he said he would appeal.

Livino also accused the media of influencing the outcome of the trial. The media gave the trial extensive coverage, especially after prosecutor Maria Jose Miranda dropped the case two weeks earlier claiming she had received threats from family members of the accused and justice officials. Mauricio Miranda then took over prosecution of the case.

The media portrayed the trial as pitting one of Brazil's poor minorities against the rich and influential in a country where wealth has often bought impunity. …