An Amazon rancher convicted of ordering the killing of American nun Dorothy Stang has been acquitted in a retrial, a court official said on Tuesday.
A jury voted 5-2 to acquit Vitalmiro Moura, one of two ranchers who allegedly ordered the killing of the 73-year-old rain forest defender three years ago, court spokeswoman Gloria Lima said.
Moura had been convicted and sentenced to 30 years in May last year, but Brazil requires retrials for first offenders who are sentenced to more than 20 years.
Human rights groups had hailed his initial conviction a sign that Brazil was cracking down on longstanding impunity in the region.
Immediately following Tuesday’s new verdict, Judge Moises Flexa ordered Moura, who had been jailed since 2005, released.
The dead nun’s relatives were stunned by his acquittal.
“The prosecution was excellent. They presented their case very well, so we’re very surprised,” said David Stang, 70, who flew from his home near Colorado Springs to attend the trial.
Stang’s sister Marguerite Hohm, 75, had watched the two-day long trial from her home in Fairfax, Virginia via a live Internet feed.
“I saw the judge shaking hands with the defendants and I didn’t understand what was going on,” Hohm said in a telephone interview. “We’re very saddened.”
Moura’s defense lawyer praised the jury, repeating his position that Moura had no motive to kill Stang. He said he expected prosecutors to appeal the acquittal, which is possible under Brazilian law.
Activists have compared Stang, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Chico Mendes, a rain forest defender killed in 1988 in the western Amazon.
Brazil’s violent Para state has witnessed about 800 land-related killings of settlers, unionists and priests in the last 30 years, a tally by the Catholic Church’s Land Pastoral, which monitors land violence in Brazil, showed.
The jury on Tuesday convicted Rayfran Neves das Sales, who had confessed to firing six, close-range shots at Stang on a muddy road deep in the Amazon rain forest in 2005.
Prosecutors said he had been offered US$25,000 to kill Stang after she fought to preserve a patch of jungle that ranchers wanted to raze for logging and cattle ranching.
Sales told the court he had acted alone and in self-defense, contradicting previous testimony in which he said he had used Moura’s gun. Tuesday’s decision ended his third trial for the crime, after a panel of judges annulled two earlier convictions last year.