Brazil's alleged child killers go free

In a judgment which stunned Brazilian human-rights workers, a court yesterday acquitted three men, including two police officers, of the 1993 massacre of eight children outside Rio de Janeiro's Candelaria cathedral. The defendants were suspected of acting as "hit men" for shopkeepers who accused the children of shoplifting and "sullying the neighbourhood".

In a bizarre 10-hour trial which ended in the small hours, it was the state prosecution, not the defence, which recommended acquittal in its summing up.

In the words of one human-rights campaigner, Dr Yvonne Bezerra de Mello: "It could only happen in Brazil, and with so-called justice like this, it probably will. People are going to keep killing."

The ruling means only two of at least eight defendants named by eyewitnesses for the Candelaria massacre will serve time. And the two, although they confessed and were sentenced to longer-than-lifetime terms, are reportedly still being paid by the state and working within a Rio military police barracks. With various reductions, troopers Marcus Vinicus Emmanuel and Nelson Cunha may be free within two years, or even earlier if they win pending retrials.

Survivors said two carloads of well-known local policemen in civilian clothes pulled up outside the cathedral on the night of 23 July 1993. They pulled out guns and opened fire on 70 children sleeping on the pavement. Six died on the spot, several were wounded and two were taken away and executed on the city's waterfront.

It was an open secret that local businessmen had paid policemen in the past to move the children out of the area and beat them up. Many residents had backed a "clean up" campaign. After a newspaper advertisement appeared with the headline "Kill a Child Criminal", the editor insisted it was not to be taken seriously.

According to human-rights workers, the judgment made a mockery of pledges by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to punish the country's endemic police brutality. "This is impunity," said Dr Bezerra de Mello, a millionaire's wife who spends her time looking after homeless children in Rio. "The court would not allow eyewitness survivors to testify. And anyway, we couldn't bring children survivors as witnesses because the police would have killed them. The prosecution was supposed to defend these kids. Instead, they defended the defendants."

Dr Bezerra de Mello said she believed the prosecution must have made a deal with the defence. Prosecutors expressed little sympathy for the victims and attacked Dr Bezerra de Mello personally for helping them. "They [the prosecutors] accused me of organising the kids, of encouraging them to do drugs."

The key witness to the massacre, Wagner dos Santos, was shot and wounded the following year after identifying several of the massacre gunmen. Dr Bezerra de Mello smuggled him to Switzerland for his protection. He returned to give evidence in the trial of Vinicus Emmanuel earlier this year but was forced to flee abroad again after further threats.

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