A rancher acquitted of ordering the killing of US nun Dorothy Stang professed admiration for the dead activist and said a key prosecution witness changed his testimony after finding God.
Vitalmiro Moura was acquitted on Tuesday in retrial after being convicted last year and sentenced to 30 years in prison for ordering the 2005 killing of the 73-year-old nun and rain forest defender.
A conviction was upheld against the gunman in the killing at the same trial, but Moura’s acquittal has sparked an outcry over the government’s failure to get to the bottom of Stang’s and other killings linked to land disputes in the Amazon.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Moura said he had no motive in the killing and supports the poor settlers Stang defended because he had grown up among them.
“I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I would have liked to so I could have shaken her hand,” the 37-year-old rancher said at his lawyer’s office in Belem, a port city at the mouth of the Amazon river.
State prosecutor Edson Souza said he was appealing Moura’s acquittal, and even Moura’s lawyer Eduardo Imbiriba said public pressure would likely cause his client to be convicted at retrial.
Stang’s brother David questioned Moura’s sincerity on Thursday, noting that he faces charges for labor abuses, has been fined for illegal logging and previously acknowledged playing a role in Dorothy Stang’s killing.
“This is disinformation they’re trying to spread,” said Stang, 70, who traveled from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to attend the trial.
Prosecutors claim Moura ordered Stang killed in a dispute over a piece of land she wanted to preserve and Moura wanted cut down for development. Moura believes police sought to pin the crime on him because the gunman and his accomplice ran to his house after the shooting.
Federal human rights officials and prosecutors are calling for an investigation of a 100,000 real (US$60,000) payment that Moura made to Amair Feijoli da Cunha, the man convicted of contracting out the killing. They claim it was payment for Cunha to recant his earlier testimony that Moura had offered money for the killing.
On Thursday, Moura acknowledged paying that sum to Cunha, but said it was to cover the earlier purchase of cattle.
Moura said that Cunha changed his testimony because he had recently found God and wanted to right his wrongs. Cunha only testified against him in the first trial because he was pressured by police and prosecutors, he said.
Moura blamed Roman Catholic activists who work with the region’s poor for pressuring prosecutors to blame someone beside confessed gunman Rayfran das Neves Sales.
“They want me to pay for all the crimes in Para state. Now that I’m acquitted, they have no one else,” Moura said.
The northern Brazilian state of Para, where Stang was gunned down with six, close-range shots from a revolver, is notorious for land-related violence, contract killings, slave-like labor conditions and wanton environmental destruction.