José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva was a rural leader killed in Nova Ipixuna, in the state of Pará, Brazil, on 24 May 2011. Him and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo, were shot dead by gunmen in an ambush on the road leading to the Praia Alta-Piranheira Agro-extractive Settlement Project, where they lived. The couple’s bodies were found inside the Praialta-Piranheira reserve, where they had worked in defence of the forest and human rights for 24 years.
They were both local leaders at the Praia Alta-Piranheira Agro-extractive Project, home to about 500 families. They had received death threats for years as a result of their work in defence of the forest and human rights, from loggers, charcoal businesses and cattle ranchers in the region. This type of illegal deforestation continues to advance constantly in the area of the Settlement Project to extract noble species of wood, such as the castanheira, angelim and jatobá.
Weeks before they were killed, José Claudio and Maria suffered an attempted killing in their home. In November 2010, at an international conference in Manaus, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva expressed concern for their safety, as a result of threats he had received, and predicted that he would be killed as a result of his work. José Cláudio and Maria informed the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the name of loggers from Jacundá and Nova Ipixuna, who were pressuring the settlers and had invaded their lands to illegally remove timber. An investigation was opened against a number of loggers in the region, and IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Agency) even conducted a research that detected illegal logging in the Settlement region, which resulted in the closure of a number of illegal sawmills. Despite denouncing the threats they suffered to the authorities on several occasions, José Cláudio and Maria do Espírito Santo had never received police protection.
José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo were also members of the National Council of Extractive Populations (CNS), an NGO founded by Chico Mendes, and were fighting for the preservation of forests in the Amazon. The Agro-extractive Settlement residents lived and produced on a plot of land of approximately 20 hectares, 80% of which were preserved forests.
In an interview, José Cláudio states: “I defend the forest and its inhabitants standing”, “but due to this work of mine I am threatened with death by the wood businessmen”. In calling attention to the urgent need for political will for the inspection and accountability for those who grab the lands of the Agroextractivist Project for the illegal exploitation of resources of the Amazon Forest, he adds: “there is a thief because there is one who buys the theft; there is destruction because there is one who buys the illegal timber”.
At a press conference on 20 July 2011, police detective Sílvio Maúes Batista concluded that the crime was motivated by a land dispute for one plot of land illegally grabbed by the authors, ruling out the hypothesis that the killing of Maria do Espírito Santo and José Cláudio was motivated by their defence of human rights or the defence of the environment through the Agro-extractive Project. According to the investigation, the farmer José Rodrigues Moreira was the intelectual author of the double homicide, which was committed by Lindonjonson Silva Rocha, his brother, together with Alberto Lopes dos Santos.
The trial of the accused started on 3 April 2013. After two days of trial, the Jury Court of Marabá convicted two people of the killing of José Cláudio and Maria do Espírito Santo. Lindonjonson Silva Rocha and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento, sentenced as the executors of the crime, were sentenced to 42 years and eight months and 45 years in prison, respectively. José Rodrigues Moreira, the one who ordered the killings, was acquitted by the jury for lack of evidence, and the judge presiding over the jury stated that the behaviour of the human rights defenders in denouncing the threats they suffered to the competent authorities had contributed to their killing.
CPT (Land Pastoral Commission) lawyer José Batista Afonso, who served as a prosecution assistant at the trial, explains that political and economic power often collaborate so that the defendants of this type of crime are not even brought to trial. According to him, “there were few cases in which this, in fact, happened. And even when we can bring these people to trial, we have difficulty in reaching a condemning sentence, because hired and premeditated crime is a more difficult crime to prove than execution”. He also states that the main cause of the killings was left open, since the evidence, according to him, is clear and revealing. “Everything is well documented with witness evidence. Unfortunately, the jurors did not obtain it.”
One day after the trial ended, a prosecution witness said she was being threatened and asked to leave the state. During the trial, family members and witnesses suffered death threats and intimidation, including inside the courtroom.
On 12 August 2014, the Pará Court of Justice overturned the sentence that acquitted José Rodrigues Moreira (accused of ordering the killings) and requested his arrest. However, he is still at large. In November 2015, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha, one of the killers who was serving sentence for the crime, escaped from prison and remains at large.
A new trial for the case had been scheduled for 6 December 2016, in Belém, where the case has been brought to for security reasons. The Belém Jury Court condemned farmer José Rodrigues Moreira for being the intellectual author of the killings of the defenders, in a decision considered historic by human rights defenders in the region.
Most cases of attacks and killings against human rights defenders are not properly investigated, and those responsible are rarely brought to justice, demonstrating that there is a characteristic impunity in the region, where the great concentration of resources in the hands of a few brings as a result a chronic tension between those who have land and those who do not. This creates a situation of unfortunately predictable violence, that also affects the lives of those who defend human rights. These are “announced deaths,” whose processes of investigation and accountability, when they exist, are marked by irregularities, given the political power that results from this inequality.