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Brazilian accused of nun's murder says death not contract killing

Amazon nun-killer says he was not paid for killing

Amazon nun-killer says he was not paid for killing
By Andrew Hay
December 9, 2005

BELEM, Brazil (Reuters) – The confessed killer of a 73-year-old American nun who defended the poor in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest told a court on Friday he shot her in self-defense, not in a contract killing.

Rayfran das Neves Sales, is seen in a video which shows how he killed nun Dorothy Stang during a trial at Justice Tribunal in Belem, Brazil, on Friday, Dec 9, 2005. Rayfran das Neves Sales and Cloadoaldo Carlos Batista will be the first of five men accused in the killing to stand trial for the Feb. 12 killing of 73-year-old nun gunned down in the remote corner of the Amazon rainforest in a dispute over land. Dorothy Stang spent the last 30 years of her life defending poor settlers in the Amazon rain forest. She was shot near the remote jungle town of Anapu in a dispute over a patch of forest that a local rancher wanted to cut down.(AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Raifran das Neves Sales told the court in the Amazon city of Belem that he killed the rain forest activist after mistaking her Bible for a gun, not in a contract killing as he had previously stated.

The ranch hand shot Dorothy Stang six times with a revolver on a jungle track in February. He and his employers had clashed with the activist as she set up a government reserve for peasants on land they claimed was theirs.

Stang worked for 30 years fighting for land rights for poor settlers in the Amazon.

“She said, ‘The weapon I have is this,’ and reached into her bag,” said Neves Sales, adding that he thought Stang was going to pull out a gun when she was actually reaching for a Bible. He said he panicked, and kept on firing at her.

The killing focused world attention on the power of loggers and ranchers who claim jungle areas and hire gunmen, or “pistoleiros,” to control them.

U.N. and federal government officials have hailed the trial as a step toward ending impunity in dozens of land-related killings on Brazil’s Amazon frontier.

Neves Sales said the rancher he worked for, Amair Feijoli da Cunha, told him Stang and peasant farmers intended to kill them to settle conflicting land claims.

“He said ‘You’ve got to kill this woman, if you don’t, this woman will kill us,'” said Neves Sales, as his girlfriend wept and his parents buried their heads in their hands.

His co-defendant in the case, Clodoaldo Carlos Batista, told the court the two men were told to kill Stang by da Cunha. He also said they were only offered money after the killing to help them escape.

But in contradictory testimony, Batista said Stang knew her life was in danger and had time to read from her bible before she was shot.

“She knew I was sent there for a reason,” said Batista, an illiterate farm hand.

Prosecutor Edson Souza ridiculed the change in Neves Sales’ story and said Stang was known in Brazil and abroad as an advocate of non-violence.

He said the defendant was trying to escape assassination charges that carry a higher penalty than homicide.

Both accused killers previously said rancher Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura offered them 50,000 reais to kill Stang but did not implicate him on Friday.

The ranchers da Cunha and Moura are both accused of ordering the crime and another man is charged with paying the gunmen to carry it out. They are expected to face trial next year. A Brazilian Senate investigation into the crime suspects other ranchers and loggers also sponsored the killing.

Brazil’s human rights minister Mario Mamede said it was the first time in an Amazon land conflict killing that accused gunmen, masterminds and middlemen would all face justice.

“We have shown it’s possible to break the cycle of impunity,” said Mamede, in Belem to monitor the trial on behalf of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“This trial is a first step toward truth and justice,” said Hina Jilani, a U.N. special envoy, who is in Brazil to report on the safety of human rights activists.


Man Claims Self-Defense in Nun’s Death
Associated Press
Dec 9, 2005

BELEM, Brazil – The man accused of killing the American nun and rain forest defender Dorothy Stang told a jury Friday that he acted in self-defense after mistaking her Bible for a gun.

Rayfran das Neves Sales is accused of killing Stang, 73, with six shots from a .38-caliber revolver on Feb. 12 on a muddy road deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forest.

Stang was killed in Para state, which is notorious across Brazil for corruption and land-related violence that in the past 20 years has claimed the lives of some 534 people. Only eight killers ever have been convicted, and many see the trial as a test of whether Brazil is serious about prosecuting land-related killings.

Sales testified he and Stang had an argument over who owned the land he was working, and that Stang threatened to “finish him off” with the help of some 150 people living on a sustainable development reserve she was trying to establish.

“She said, ‘The weapon I have is this,’ and reached into her bag,” Sales said. “I didn’t know what she was going to pull out of her bag, so I shot her.”

Prosecutors allege that Vitalmiro Moura, a rancher, offered Sales and his co-defendant Clodoaldo Carlos Batista $25,000 to kill the nun, who spent the last 30 years of her life defending poor settlers in the rain forest. The prosecution contends that she was reading her Bible when she was shot at close range.

In his testimony Friday, Sales sought to remove blame from his co-defendant and from Moura, one of two ranchers accused of orchestrating the killing.

Sales acknowledged that his employer, Amair Feijoli, had given him the gun and told him to kill the nun a day earlier. But Sales denied being offered money to kill her.

Feijoli has been charged with acting as a go-between for the gunmen and ranchers.

A Brazilian Senate commission found the killing was part of a wider conspiracy involving a number of ranchers. Only Moura and another rancher, Regivaldo Galvao, have been charged with orchestrating the shooting.

Sales said Friday that he did not intend to kill Stang but that after firing the first shot he “lost his head.” He did not remember firing five more bullets, he said.

Batista told the court he was unaware that Sales was armed and about to kill Stang when the two met her in the forest, echoing the testimony of Sales, who also said Batista did not know about the gun and ran away when the first shot was fired.

During the trial, which is expected to last through Saturday, prosecutors showed videotapes of confessions that contradicted the defendants’ testimony at the trial. They also showed three videotaped reenactments of the crime.

In two of the tapes, each of the defendants separately re-enacted their version of events. A third version was provided by the only eyewitness to the killing a man who appeared in court wearing a ski-mask and a bulletproof vest.

“I wasn’t watching it. I only saw the scene in my head. I couldn’t watch it,” said Marguerite Stang, 72, the nun’s sister, who was in tears afterward.

Following the killing, Sales said, he met Batista in the forest and the two men fled to a house owned by Moura, who was shocked to learn what had happened.

“He said he wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy, much less Dorothy,” Sales said.

Sales’ testimony contradicted earlier confessions and seemed to be part of a defense strategy to classify the crime as a “simple homicide,” which carries a lesser sentence than a premeditated hit.

Stang, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, has evoked comparisons to Chico Mendes, the rain forest defender who was killed in 1988 in the western Amazon state of Acre. Human rights advocates and a United Nations observer are among those attending the trial in this Amazon port city.

“If they are convicted it would be a sign that things are changing and impunity is ending,” said Sandra Carvalho of the human rights group Global Justice.

Stang’s brother, who traveled from his home near Cold Springs, Colo., to attend the trial, called Sales’ testimony absurd.

“It’s lies, all lies,” David Stang said.

Outside the courthouse, some 500 protesters camped out under crude tarpaulins, waving banners demanding justice and land reform. Rural violence has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in the past decade in Brazil.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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