Convicted mastermind of Sr. Dorothy Stang's murder ordered back to prison

Sr. Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is pictured in a 2004 file photo in Belem, northern Brazil. The nun was 73 when she was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. (CNS/Reuters)

The man convicted of leading the killing Sr. Dorothy Stang was ordered Feb. 19 to be returned to prison by the First Panel of the Federal Supreme Court in Brazil.

Regivaldo Galvão was sentenced in April 2010 to 30 years in prison for his role in the plot to murder Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who was killed in 2005 in a rural settlement in Anapu, a city in the Amazon region of Pará state. Stang had been working as a missionary in the area of Brazil that historically has had the most dramatic struggles for agrarian reform. Galvão's sentence was later reduced in subsequent court proceedings to 25 years and his arrest was ordered in 2017.

After serving almost one year of his sentence, Galvão was ordered to be released in May 2018 by a preliminary decision of Minister Marco Aurélio Mello of Brazil's Supreme Court to await further appeals. However, the First Panel, a board of the Supreme Court with revision roles, just ordered him to be re-arrested.

Sr. Jean Bellini*, of the Congregation of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Rochester and one of the coordinators of Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a body of the Catholic Church that supports landless people, analyzed the recent Supreme Court decision.

"Brazilian society lives in a constant game of antagonistic social forces that press to assert their interests," she said in an interview with Global Sisters Report. "The judiciary, at various levels, bases its decisions on conceptions consistent with its reading of reality and law enforcement. Worth saying, two weights, two measures," she added, meaning that the Brazilian judiciary decides differently depending on who is being sentenced.

Other convicted criminals in Stang's death were also sentenced in 2010. Four men were convicted in Stang's death and received prison sentences from 7 to 30 years. Each started to serve their prison terms but after serving about a sixth of their sentences were eligible to be released and have been freed.

Stang was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, at age 73 with six gunshots on a rural road in Anapu County at a sustainable development project, one of the agrarian reform plans the Brazilian government have been trying to push in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon basin.

This project was among biggest of the plan's reforms, inciting the enmity of some local farmers claiming to own the land that would be used.

The lands of the sustainable development project were designated by Brazil´s government for agrarian reform but some local landowners of Anapu are challenging this decision in court. Galvão is among them.

Stang arrived in Brazil in 1966 and in the 1970s went to carry out pastoral work in the Amazon region, focusing on reforestation projects and the generation of jobs and income for the local poor. Her death became an international symbol of the agrarian reform struggle, and her life and work have been depicted in books, movies and an opera.

Now, the decision to send Galvão back to prison comes at a delicate time — for both the landless in the Anapu region and because of political issues at the national level in Brazil.

In the region of Anapu where Stang lived and worked, more than 20 landless militants have been murdered since 2005, the most recent one fewer than two weeks ago. No one has been arrested for having ordered or doing the killing.

The decision to send Galvão back to jail also comes just weeks before a third hearing in the case of Fr. Jose Amaro Lopes, who had worked with Stang. Amaro was arrested in 2018 for alleged crimes connected to the land disputes in Anapu between landless people and big landowners. The Pastoral Land Commission considers Lopes not guilty but a victim of the same detractors who opposed Stang before she died.

Lopes was in put in jail in 2018 — and then temporarily freed — due to a preliminary local court decision. The March 13 hearing will decide if he must go back to prison to keep on serving based on a preliminary decision by the court.

Brazil's legal structure permits judges to send people to jail even before the final court decision while police investigate the alleged crime, causing this movement in and out of jail.

Also a key issue in Galvão case is a larger constitutional debate in Brazil over whether someone convicted in a case serves time until appeals are exhausted. A hearing by the Supreme Court is scheduled for April 10 for a final decision. That could determine whether Galvão is released again until his last appeals are heard.

*A previous version of this story misspelled Bellini's name.

[Carlos Tautz is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. He mostly writes about human rights, international issues and economy.]

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