On 16 July, I met with Manoel Gomes from the Associação dos Trabalhadores/as Rurais Nova Vitória /Nova Vitória Rural Workers’ Association; Andréia Silvério and Paulo Diniz from the Comissão Pastoral da Terra/ Pastoral Land Commission; José Vargas Sobrinho Júnior, lawyer for the relatives and survivors of the Pau D’Arco massacre and of families occupying the Santa Lúcia farm where the massacre took place; Marcelo Mendanha, President of the subsection of Redenção of the Brazilian Bar Association and lawyer of José Vargas; and Carla Vitória Barbosa from Front Line Defenders. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss violations targeting Human Rights Defenders since the Pau D’Arco massacre in 2017, and support the mandate is able offer.
The massacre is sadly a well-known case, and one that the mandate has issued a number of communications on.
Among the human rights violations that are alleged to have occurred in the context of the massacre are: landless small farmers’ usurpation from their lands, a flawed legal process for untitled land, and a spate of killings. It underscores the brutal violence, harassment and criminalisation suffered by Human Rights Defenders, the reported slowness of the Brazilian judicial system in addressing their concerns and inadequacies in protection mechanisms.
Those present explained in detail how investigations into the case and identification of those who had ordered the killings has been hampered by the police’s failure to protect the crime scene, and violence and intimidation towards witnesses and local leaders. They highlighted that a federal police investigation and confessions from two civil police officers discounted a version of events presented by those accused of the crime, who claimed they had only acted in self-defence following a confrontation. Death threats to the surviving rural workers and relatives of the victims are ongoing and have intensified as the investigations have unfolded, accompanied by further killings. The most recent victim was Fernando dos Santos Araújo, who was killed in his home in January 2021.
Andréia Silvério and José Vargas, a lawyer who himself is reportedly being criminalised for his involvement in the case, discussed what needs to happen in relation to the massacre, with the aim of holding the perpetrators to account and seeking justice for the victims. He highlighted four key areas:
- The continuation of the investigations into the perpetrators of the massacre and subsequent killings, including those of Rosenildo Pereira de Almeida and Fernando dos Santos.
- Financial, material, protection and psychosocial support for the victims of the massacre.
- Land reform, including the conclusion of the purchase of the Santa Lúcia Farm, where the Pau D’Arco massacre took place, so that families may live peacefully in the area.
- The removal of obstacles José Vargas’ lawyer has been facing in accessing the criminal process against his client.
I expressed my thanks for meeting with those present and hearing first-hand accounts of the defenders’ experience with what they called “rife” impunity. I was particularly moved to hear from Manoel, a farmer and HRD from the area, who wished only that everyone could enjoy their right to live on their land, and grow and sell their produce. Human rights violations have multi-dimensional aspects, and I reiterated my commitment to follow up on cases where Human Rights Defenders are being targeted, criminalised and killed, working alongside other mandate-holders, including the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, to pick up on broader contextual issues around land reform.