RURAL WORKER MURDER

OEA Court judges Brazilian state for the killing of landless worker Manoel Luiz da Silva

Conviction could influence Brazil's justice system; lawsuit demands support for relatives and prevention for new case

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | João Pessoa (Paraíba state) |
On Thursday (8), in San Jose de Costa Rica, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled on the complaint against the Brazilian state for omission in the murder of rural worker Manoel Luiz da Silva, which took place 27 years ago
On Thursday (8), in San Jose de Costa Rica, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled on the complaint against the Brazilian state for omission in the murder of rural worker Manoel Luiz da Silva, which took place 27 years ago - Reprodução

On Thursday (8), in San Jose de Costa Rica, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled on the complaint against the Brazilian state for omission in the murder of rural worker Manoel Luiz da Silva, which took place 27 years ago.

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The crime took place on May 19, 1997, in São Miguel de Taipu, Paraíba state. On that day, Manoel and three other landless workers were on their way from a local grocery store back to an agrarian reform encampment when they were attacked by private security guards as they passed a road on the Engenho Itaipu farm, owned by Alcides Vieira de Azevedo. Manoel, who was 40 at the time, left behind his wife, Edileuza Adelino de Lima, who was two months pregnant, and a four-year-old son called Manoel Adelino.

Faced with the delay and the lack of an official response, the Pastoral Land Commission and the NGOs Justiça Global (Global Justice, in English) and Dignatis accuse the Brazilian state of omission in the police investigation and criminal prosecution that investigated Manoel's murder, violating the right to the psychic and moral integrity of the victim's relatives, as well as the rights to judicial guarantees and judicial protection, as determined by the American Convention on Human Rights.

In 2003, the case was sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and admitted in 2006. In 2021, the IACHR sent the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The hearing will be broadcast live on the official accounts of Justiça Global on social media platforms, as well as those of the Inter-American Court. There will also be an online mobilization, through a tweet with the hashtags #JusticeForAlmirEManoel and #BastaDeViolênciaNoCampo, #PeloDireitoDeLutarPelaTerra, promoted by the petitioning organizations in the case.

Understand the case

At the time of the crime, the Engenho Itaipu farm was being expropriated to become public utility land aimed at reform. As they passed along the road inside the property, the usual route for local residents, the four workers were threatened and insulted by the henchmen. Manoel Luiz was shot and died on the spot. The others managed to escape.

The investigation had several flaws, such as the delay in carrying out forensics, the lack of a s,earch for the firearm used in the crime and the disregard for the context of violence against rural workers in Paraíba in which the case took place. The third henchman, who allegedly fired the shots, was never found and, after a 16-year trial, the other two were acquitted by the courts in 2003. Despite the recurring threats against the movement's members, the landowner was not investigated.

"Throughout this period, investigative diligence was limited to the hearing of a small number of people, in addition to diligently pursuing investigative lines available from the beginning, such as the identification of the alleged perpetrator of the shots, the presence of weapons at the headquarters of the farm where the facts took place and the insertion of the facts in the larger context of persecution against landless rural workers, including other similar facts involving the farm’s owner," write the petitioning organizations.

Manoel Luiz's family experienced a dramatic situation in the years that followed his assassination. His wife, Edileuza, developed depression and alcoholism after losing her husband. She lost her youngest son when he was nine months old and died in 2005. Their eldest son, Manoel Adelino de Lima, lived with various relatives and had to work from an early age, thus being unable to finish school. Manoel's mother, Josefa, still suffers from the arbitrary loss of her son.

Manoel Luiz settlement

The settlement where Manoel Luiz lived bears his name. However, many of the campers who arrived with him left soon after his murder, for fear of reprisals. By April 2022, the Manoel Luiz Settlement had 700 residents.

The settlers face serious challenges, such as difficulty accessing water for agricultural production, a low number of cisterns, precarious access roads, difficulty enrolling in family farming programs and the distance between their houses and the areas designated for plantations.

A systematic scenario of violence in the countryside and against the struggle for the right to land

The case of Manoel Luiz da Silva is not the only one. The lack of an adequate state response to his murder reveals and reinforces a recurring situation of human rights violations against rural workers in the state of Paraíba, in particular, and in Brazil, in general, "reproducing the logic of impunity, lack of public policies, omission and connivance of police forces, the ineffectiveness of land reform policies. In short, [it shows] the failure of the Brazilian state to comply with its duties under the American Convention," the petitioning organizations describe.

According to the latest survey by the Pastoral Land Commission, land conflicts in Brazil increased by 16.7% and affected 181,304 families in 2022. The survey shows that 47 people were murdered that year, 30% more than in 2021. Murder attempts jumped from 33 to 123 cases from one year to the next and 206 death threats were recorded. In 2022, the survey recorded 19 land conflicts in the state of Paraíba alone, affecting 3,893 families.

According to partial data from the Pastoral Land Commission, 973 incidents of land conflict in the countryside were recorded in the first half of 2023, which represents an increase of 8% compared to the same period in 2022. The figure also indicates that the first half of 2023 ranks second in the last decade, surpassed only by 2020, when 1,007 conflicts were recorded.

In November last year, also in Paraíba, rural workers Ana Paula Costa Silva and Aldecy Viturino Barros were shot dead in the town of Princesa Isabel. In that same month, farmer Josimar da Silva Pereira was executed in the town of Vitória de Santo Antão (Pernambuco state). These cases are still under investigation.

The petitioners' demands

The petitioners ask the state to compensate and provide adequate care for the physical and psychological harm Manoel’s relatives suffered, launch an investigation and prosecution of the shooter, named Vanderlei, and recognize responsibility, including in the Manoel Luiz Settlement.

They also call for twenty non-repetition measures, including a broad project to restructure and improve the site; the construction of a comprehensive policy to prevent and mitigate the impacts of violence in the countryside; the training of public security and military professionals in human rights education programs; the expansion of a policy to combat land grabbing; the recognition and promotion of the "Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights", investigating crimes committed by private agents in the countryside.

Comments from the petitioners

Read below comments from representatives of the organizations that filed the complaint with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights:

Justiça Global

"The murder of Manoel Luiz is yet another case in a long series of human rights violations related to the struggle for land in Brazil. Now, the Court will have the opportunity to rule, in more detail, on the relationship between the absence of a fair land structure, the struggle for land coupled with violence against those who fight."

"In Manoel's case, there is an important difference because it is not the murder of a leader but the death of a worker who was fighting, like many others, for access to land. The Inter-American Court will be able to define what parameters should be followed in cases of investigation of human rights violations in the struggle for land in a broader way than in other cases, in which the person defending human rights already brings a series of relatively consolidated international parameters."

Eduardo Baker, a lawyer and the coordinator of Justiça Global's International Justice program.

Pastoral Land Commission of Paraíba state

"The Manoel Luiz case is the story of yet another farmer cowardly murdered. He left the camp and went to a stall to buy food with other comrades. On his return, the camp was surrounded by goons."

"Some comrades managed to run, but he was shot and died on the spot. There was a trial, and the man accused of the crime was acquitted. The masterminds – the land owners – were never prosecuted. As a result, the lawyers took the case to the International Court because the Brazilian state has once again violated the rights of these families by not giving them a fair trial in this case."

João Muniz, an agent of the Pastoral Land Commission of Paraíba.

Dignitatis

"The Manoel da Silva case is very important for Paraíba, but not only. Many rural workers have their rights violated by the high concentration of land and the lack of an effective national land reform policy. This case also reveals the weaknesses of the justice system, which result in cases dragging on for years, without due observance of deadlines, as well as the collusion between the police forces and the power structures of the large estate in Paraíba."

"The Manoel Luiz da Silva case shows how the judicial procedures provided for in Brazil's legislation are violated when the victims are rural workers and other populations seen as subalterns. The impact of international condemnation is huge because the response can be used nationally."

Hugo Belarmino de Morais, the director of Dignitatis, a professor of Law at the Federal University of Paraíba and the Coordinator of OBUNTU – Interdisciplinary Observatory and Advisory Service on Territorial Conflicts.

About the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is one of the three regional courts for the protection of human rights, together with the European Court of Human Rights and the African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights. It is an autonomous judicial institution whose purpose is to apply and interpret the American Convention on Human Rights. Brazil is part of the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights and, in addition to being a signatory to the Pact of San Jose, recognizes the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Justiça Global is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that, since 1999, has been working to defend and promote human rights through advocacy in international human rights mechanisms, the production of data and the monitoring of emblematic cases, with a focus on the protection of human rights defenders and democracy, socio-environmental and climate justice and the fight against institutional violence and public security.

The Pastoral Land Commission seeks to contribute to initiatives that realize the rights won and guaranteed by law and expand civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, assuming pressure and conflict as inherent to the democratic process.

Dignitatis seeks to promote and realize human rights, democracy, peace and the autonomy of peoples, populations and social movements in their quest for social justice and sustainable ethnic, social and cultural development.

Edited by: Cida Alves