Prosecutor in Brazil appeals acquittal in murder of U.S. nun

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A Brazilian prosecutor has appealed the controversial acquittal of a rancher convicted last year for ordering the murder of U.S. nun Dorothy Stang in this country's Amazon forest, extending an emotional trial that's made world headlines.

The appeal filed Thursday in the northern Brazilian city of Belem by prosecutor Edson Cardoso de Souza seeks to cancel Tuesday's acquittal and schedule a new trial for rancher Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, who was freed immediately after his acquittal.

"We are outraged about the acquittal because it goes against all the evidence the court in the first trial used to convict him," de Souza said. "We're convinced a new trial is necessary."

De Souza said a panel of judges would decide whether to grant the appeal by year's end. Any new trial would begin early next year.

Since the 73-year-old nun was shot to death in February 2005 in the Amazonian town of Anapu, Brazil, she's become a martyr for many here who are trying to protect the world's most diverse biosystem from destruction. Her trial also has come to symbolize the immunity of the region's powerful ranchers, who have violently intimidated small farmers eking out a living and activists trying to save the rainforest.

Before she was killed, Stang had been trying to create a sustainable-development project on forestland that her supporters said had been protected by Brazilian land regulators. That didn't stop de Moura from claiming the land and other farmers from settling there.

Stang's murder sparked an international outcry, and police eventually arrested two ranchers, de Moura and Regivaldo Pereira Galvao, an alleged intermediary and two alleged gunmen for the crime.

The intermediary, Amair Feijoli da Cunha, confessed to receiving about $30,000 to set up the hit, while one of the gunmen, Rayfran das Neves Sales, admitted to using de Moura's gun to shoot Stang six times at close range while she was sitting in the forest reading her Bible.

What has drawn the suspicion of many in Brazil about de Moura's acquittal is that it happened after da Cunha and Sales suddenly changed their stories. Da Cunha said last week that de Moura in fact hadn't hired him, and Sales insisted that he'd acted on his own volition. Sales had hidden on de Moura's property after shooting Stang.

De Moura was sentenced to 30 years in prison last year, but Brazilian law calls for an automatic retrial for anyone receiving a prison sentence of more than 20 years. That retrial ended Tuesday night when a jury voted 5 to 2 to let de Moura go.

Human rights activists, environmentalists and even Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva criticized the acquittal, with the president saying Thursday, "As a Brazilian, as a common citizen, I am obviously indignant about the result," although he said he wouldn't interfere with the legal proceedings.

Eduardo Imbiriba, the rancher's lawyer, shot back Friday, saying the president "hasn't been here and followed the case, and he hasn't seen the evidence. Only someone who knows the case can make any statements about it."

De Souza said his office was investigating the bank accounts of Sales and da Cunha, and even of jury members, to find out if someone had paid them off to change their testimonies and acquit de Moura.

Sales' attorney, Marilda Cantal, said Friday that there was no money involved and that Sales had lied when he accused de Moura of hiring him because prosecutors had offered him a more lenient sentence if he made the charge.

Sales changed his story, Cantal said, when evidence from de Moura's retrial supposedly weakened his account. Sales also wanted to clear his conscience by setting the record straight, Cantal said.

"He wasn't acting on the command of anybody," Cantal said. "He wants to tell the truth now."

She added that Sales shot Stang after a 20-minute argument in which the 73-year-old nun insisted that Sales and his family had to leave the proposed reserve, where they'd settled.

Sales was convicted Tuesday to 28 years in prison for the crime.

Stang was a well-known figure in the Amazon, having spent three decades there working with small farmers and environmentalists. The Dayton, Ohio, native became a naturalized Brazilian and in her death has achieved near-mythic status.

Brazilian nun Margarida Pantoja, who has closely followed the Stang case, said she and others will stay vigilant through the possible appeal and will continue to protect the forest from destructive development. Pantoja said she's asked authorities to provide her and other activists with more security in the wake of the acquittal.

"We'll wait, but unhappily, we have to admit that what still matters here is economics," Pantoja said. "Whoever has money doesn't go to jail."