A Brazilian landowner accused of ordering the murder of two activists who campaigned against illegal logging and evictions in the Amazon has been acquitted due to a lack of evidence.
Jose Rodrigues Moreira was said to have hired two hit men to shoot Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria in 2011 after they opposed the eviction of three families who lived on his farm.
The two men who carried out the killing, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento, were found guilty and both sentenced to more than 40 years in jail.
But the majority decision by seven jurors to clear Moreira sparked angry protests outside the court in Marabá, Pará state, where powerful landowners have often been able to kill enemies with impunity.
Activists had hoped the case would prove to be a watershed moment in Brazil, where dozens of activists are murdered each year, after President Dilma Rousseff ordered a Federal Police investigation.
Instead, friends and fellow activists left the courtroom in tears. Outside, around 100 campaigners waved wooden crosses and chanted while others defaced the court building with red hand prints.
Other threw stones at riot police and blocked a stretch of the Trans-Amazon highway.
Mercedes Queiroz, a friend of the couple, told Al Jazeera English: “Everyone is upset with the verdict. Once more there is a feeling that impunity reigns in the Amazon region.”
The couple, who had been campaigning in the Amazon for decades, were gunned down on a bridge near a jungle reserve in Nova Ipixuna, where they taught farmers how to use the land sustainably.
After the murder, other farmers also received threats and Brazil's National Security Force was brought in in order to protect them. Ten people had to be evacuated, including five children.
As well as opposing evictions, the Silvas had reported illegal loggers to the authorities, and stood up to the interests that wanted to clear the forest to sell timber or make room for cattle or plantations.
That was a dangerous vocation in one of Brazil’s most violent and lawless states, notorious for contract killings, where workers are often kept in slave-like conditions and environmental destruction is widespread.
In Brazil, killings over land are common and rarely punished. Last month, the Land Pastoral – an organisation that tracks land-related killings – said the number of rural activists killed in the country rose 10 per cent from 2011 to 2012, with most of those 32 deaths occurring in the Amazon region.
Prosecutors announced they would appeal, as did lawyers for the two convicted men.
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