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Brazilian State condemned for the murder of rural worker Antonio Tavares

Inter-American Court decision rules that Military Justice can no longer investigate crimes committed by military personnel against civilians.

Widow and children of Antonio Tavares, during the announcement of the sentence, in Curitiba_Foto: MST PR

The Brazilian State was condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a sentence published on Thursday (March 14). The Court recognized the severe violence and negligence by the Brazilian justice system regarding the murder of rural worker Antonio Tavares and the injuries suffered by over 197 members of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST, in Portuguese) at the hands of agents of the Paraná Military Police. These incidents occurred during the repression of a march on Federal Highway BR-277, in Campo Largo (state of Paraná), a march in support of agrarian reform that took place on May 2, 2000, in Curitiba. Women, children, and elderly people were also injured during such repression.

Faced with the possibility of the case being shelved by the Brazilian courts and perpetuating impunity, the case was denounced in 2004 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In February 2021, the case was submitted to the Inter-American Court by the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), Terra de Direitos, and Justiça Global. Family members of Antonio Tavares, his widow and three children, attended the announcement of the sentence in Curitiba, along with members of the MST, Terra de Direitos, and other supporters of agrarian reform.

With more than 80 pages, the ruling has four major orders for the Brazilian State. The first concerns the fact that military justice does not have the competence to judge and investigate military personnel who commit crimes against civilians. Such a measure aims to tackle the current situation of impunity. In the process of holding those involved in the crime against Tavares accountable, the military and civil police inquiries were shelved and the physical injuries inflicted on the more than 197 wounded people were never investigated by local authorities. Another measure included in the judgment is the inclusion of specific content in the curriculum for the permanent training of public security agents, in order to ensure respect for the rights of demonstrators and protesters.

The judgment also recognizes the right to protest and orders both the Brazilian and Paraná states, in dialogue with victims and their representatives, to carry out a public act to acknowledge their responsibility for the rights violations in the case. The judgment must also be widely publicized by national public authorities.

Another measure included in the ruling is for the State to protect the monument erected alongside the BR-277 federal highway, near the site of the massacre that took place in 2000. The work was designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer and was declared an intangible heritage site in 2023. The decision mandates the adoption of all appropriate measures for the preservation of the site, ensuring its maintenance and public access.

The Court also ordered reparations for the victims who were present on the day as well as for Antonio Tavares’ relatives, including psychological support and compensation for moral and material damages.

Loreci Lisboa is one of the victims of the BR-277 massacre. She suffered several injuries and saw Antonio Tavares’ murder up close. “We suffered a lot that day. I hope that with this, not only this government but others to come will know what to do with the people who come to protest. Not even animals were treated like us. It was inhumane what they did to us.”

She followed the announcement of the sentence also in Curitiba and was overwhelmed when asked to comment on what she was feeling. “My heart is still racing. It’s a great victory that we’ve achieved after all these years. It’s been more than 20 years of struggle. We feel like human beings in the face of this decision. This decision, for those of us from the lower classes, from the Sem Terra family, is a huge victory. Another victory is that the monument can stay there and we can visit it.”

For Roberto Baggio, from the national coordination of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Paraná, the judgment is a victory in the face of so many years of impunity: “Finally, after 24 years, justice has been attained. The Court, in its decision, acknowledges that fighting for land and getting organized is not a crime, it is a right of the people in order to democratize the land. It recognizes that the state of Paraná is the perpetrator of the violence. The Court recognizes that the Antonio Tavares monument is the memory of the history of the collective struggle, of the rural workers' struggle, and of all those who fight for human rights. And that it is up to the Brazilian State and the government of Paraná to re-educate public security agents. The issue of human rights is no longer a matter for the public security system, but one to be dealt with through public policies. The Court’s decision is a binding one, which fuels the struggle for agrarian reform and the struggle for rights and for advancements in the democratization of land ownership in the country.”

Ayala Ferreira, a member of the MST’s Human Rights Sector, emphasizes the importance of the decision, given a history of slowness in implementing the agrarian reform, which often results in violence: “This is a country that has never implemented a broad and universal agrarian reform policy. And such reality of land concentration creates this violent scenario of a silent war that is being waged in the Brazilian countryside.” Since 1985, when the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra – CPT, in Portuguese) started systematizing cases of violence in the countryside, more than 2,000 people have been murdered.

The condemnation is not just symbolic, as the Brazilian State is a signatory part of the American Convention on Human Rights and has submitted itself to the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court. The decision is binding and unappealable. The deadline for complying with the orders is one year from the judgment’s date of publication. In addition to these, two other judgments by the Inter-American Court have condemned the Brazilian State for crimes related to the struggle for land.

Camila Gomes, the international advocacy coordinator at Terra de Direitos, highlights that this is Brazil’s 13th condemnation by the Inter-American Court and the third involving crimes committed by State agents against landless workers. “The events took place 24 years ago, but what the Court is saying to the Brazilian State today is still very current. It says that fighting for rights is not a crime and that the authorities should, instead of repressing and reacting violently, protect people who get organized to fight for rights. The Court is saying that the impunity for police violence must stop”.

The lawyer stresses the importance of the decision regarding the investigation of cases of crimes committed by police officers against civilians, which will no longer be the responsibility of the Military Justice system. “It is absolutely incompatible with international law and the Court’s jurisprudence for the military justice system to investigate police officers suspected or accused of committing crimes against civilians. This cannot continue to happen. In order to overcome this situation of impunity, Brazil must, within a year, amend its national legislation to ensure that the Military Police does not have the power to investigate crimes committed against civilians.”

Although it deals with events that took place 24 years ago, this decision is very current for people who get organized to fight for their rights: “These crimes against people who struggle for rights go unpunished. This conviction puts the following question on the country’s political agenda, which must be addressed by the Brazilian authorities: ‘How many more lives of landless rural workers will be taken, and how many more cases of violence against people who are just defending their rights will have to happen before Brazil recognizes that fighting for rights is not a crime, so that the lives of people who defend rights are effectively protected?’” she asks.

For Glaucia Marinho, executive director of Justiça Global, the IACHR ruling is even more important because it removes the responsibility for investigating crimes committed by the police against civilians from the Military Justice system. “Brazil’s condemnation in the Antônio Tavares case is an important step towards the realization of justice, as well as towards reparation and mitigation of violations against human rights defenders, especially those who work to defend land and territory. By ordering the Brazilian State to change the jurisdiction of the Military Justice system so that it no longer has the power to judge crimes against civilians, the Court is pushing Brazil to take a decisive step in tackling impunity and police violence in the country.”

Find the full judgment or read the summary

Actions: Land Conflicts
Axes: Earth, territory and space justice