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Brazil Begins Land Dispute Trial

August 14, 2000

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Three police officers charged with killing 10 squatters in one of Brazil’s bloodiest land conflicts pleaded innocent Monday, telling a judge they acted in self-defense.

Airton Ramos de Morais, Jose Emilio da Silva Evangelista and Daniel da Silva Furtado are each charged with three counts of homicide in a 1995 clash that left 10 squatters and two police officers dead near the southern Amazon town of Corumbiara some 1,800 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

In their opening testimony, each of the officers told Judge Sandra Santos that they had traveled to the Santa Eliana ranch with the intention of forcing out 500 squatters by cutting off their water and waiting them out.

But in the early hours of Aug. 9, 1995, commanding officers ordered them to advance on the squatters and a shootout ensued.

``I fired, my companions fired, the special operations commandos fired. It was a real confrontation,″ said Furtado, ``It wasn’t until it ended that I knew what happened.″

Prosecutors allege some 300 police encircled the camp around 2 a.m., tossed in tear gas and stun grenades and invaded the settlement with guns blazing.

Autopsy reports later showed that of the 10 squatters killed, seven were shot point blank in the face, neck, chest and back. One victim, Ercilio Oliveira de Campos, was shot 19 times. Another, who was not identified, was shot 12 times in the face.

Lawyers for the police argue they were met with gunfire as they arrived to carry out an eviction order. Squatters had asked the government to carve out a small plot for them, but local ranchers insisted on expelling them.

``The police only reacted after the killing of two policemen in an area where there were 190 officers against 1,200 landless,″ Marcos Soares, a lawyer for the police told reporters before the trial.

Closing arguments were expected later in the week and a verdict was likely either Thursday or Friday.

Security around the courthouse was tight with hundreds of police outside and federal agents inside.

The trial is the first in a series of such proceedings expected to last through early September. Thirteen officers and two squatters will be tried.

The case has taken five years to get to trial due to the complex nature of the country’s justice system. Some say the politically explosive nature of the case has also dragged the matter out.

Unequal land distribution is at the root of rural violence in Brazil, where 90 percent of the land belongs to 20 percent of the people, and the poorest 40 percent own just 1 percent of the land.

Over the past decade more than 1,000 people have lost their lives in land disputes in Brazil, according to the Land Pastoral, a Catholic group that advocates land reform.

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