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Rancher convicted of plotting farmworker's 1991 murder

CNN.com, 7 June 2000, Web posted at: 7:46 PM EDT (2346 GMT)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- Nearly 10 years after the murder of an Amazon union leader, a court in northern Brazil convicted a local rancher of ordering the killing and sentenced him to 19 1/2 years in prison.

Cheering erupted in the courtroom as judge Carlos Mantalvao das Neves read the sentence against Jeronimo Alves Amorim late Tuesday night in the Amazon River port of Belem, the capital of Para state, about 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Rio.

This is historic, said Malu Maranhao, spokeswoman for the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission in Goiania, near the capital of Brasilia. This is a first step toward the end of impunity.

Land violence is rampant in Para state, where 700 farmworkers have been killed in the past 15 years, according to church figures. It was especially bad in Rio Maria, a frontier town some 500 kilometers (300 miles ) south of Belem, where Expedito Ribeiro de Souza was head of the Farmworkers Union.

On February 2, 1991, Souza was leaving union headquarters when he was shot twice in the head and once in the back. The same fate had befallen his predecessor, Joao Canuto, and other union leaders.

Human rights activists protested that officials had done nothing to protect Souza, despite frequent death threats for his opposition to unequal distribution of land and rampant destruction of the rain forest by ranchers and loggers.

Gunman Jose Serafim Sales was convicted of pulling the trigger and sentenced to 24 years in 1995, while Amorim's ranch foreman Francisco de Assis Ferreira got 20 years for hiring Sales to kill Souza. Sales later escaped from prison and is at large, while Ferreira is out on parole.

Amorim's lawyers said they would appeal.

Maranhao said the conviction could signal a change in Amazon-style justice, which historically has favored land owners. Of the 1,169 victims of land violence documented by the Catholic church between 1985 and 1998, only 86 cases have gone to trial and just eight defendants accused of ordering a killing have been convicted.