BELEM, BRAZIL — A jury convicted a rancher Tuesday of ordering the slaying of Sister Dorothy Stang, a U.S. missionary who championed the cause of the Amazon's landless peasants.
The verdict was met here with celebratory music, tearful embraces and thunderous applause among farmers gathered in a public square. Human rights experts hailed the decision as a long-awaited break after years of impunity afforded to large landowners in the rain forest region.
"Maybe this is the beginning of justice," said Romeiro Batista Medeiros, a councilman for the Amazonian town of Anapu, where Stang had lived for more than two decades and had become legendary as a defender of the poor and landless.
Medeiros was among the hundreds who had put up a tent city, dubbed "Camp Dorothy Lives," in the plaza across from the courthouse where jurors heard the case against Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, the rancher accused of being one of the masterminds of the 73-year-old nun's slaying in February 2005.
"Impunity's reign ends with this conviction," declared Marselha Goncalves Margerin, who monitored the case here for the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.
In a region where land disputes have caused revolution and civil war, Brazil stands out for its sharp disparities in ownership of arable land. Such feuds have spawned hundreds of killings in the lawless Amazon, most of which go unresolved. Cattlemen and ranchers involved in land seizures or evictions of peasants are widely believed to be behind the slayings.
In the last three decades, authorities said, only a few convictions have resulted from almost 800 known killings arising from land conflicts.
After the jury's verdict, a judge sentenced De Moura to the maximum prison term of 30 years. Stang was shot six times at point-blank range on a muddy track five hours' drive from her home in Anapu, a sprawling settlement of 30,000 at the edge of the rain forest. The last five bullets hit her when she was already on the ground, investigators said.
The judge labeled the crime "cowardly."
Two of Stang's brothers, both ex-priests, came from the United States to witness the trial. The family initially had faced some hostility here in Belem, the capital of Para state, notoriously under the sway of cattlemen and lumber interests eager to exploit the rain forests.
"I just hope this opens up the door to justice in so many other cases of violence against the poor farmers of the Amazon," said David Stang, 69, a former Maryknoll missionary in Africa.
The family was disappointed that Pope Benedict XVI had not mentioned Stang during his visit to Brazil, which ended Sunday. She was associated with a politically tinged activist wing of the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes called "liberation theology," that the pope has tried hard to stamp out.
"The pope didn't recognize the miracle of Dorothy's life, but the people of Anapu sure did," said Thomas Stang, a teacher from Los Angeles. "For me, Dorothy was a shepherd, and these people were her flock."
The Stangs and several nuns of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the slain nun's order, were mobbed by the Amazonian farmers as they descended the stairs of the courthouse and crossed the street into the plaza. An electric guitar played Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" as a celebration erupted in the square, provisionally named after Stang and filled with posters bearing her likeness. A tropical downpour didn't douse the exhilaration.
"Maybe all these people will finally have some peace," said Sister Jane Dwyer, 66, who lived with Stang in Anapu for almost a decade.
When she was killed, Stang was attempting to sort out a dispute involving peasants in a jungle clearing who had been granted legal rights to a patch of land but were under threat from cattlemen. Ranchers had burned a dozen of the peasants' houses just before she arrived at the settlement, authorities say.
The conviction of De Moura had been far from assured in a state that is a base for landowners who forge deeds and clear-cut rain forest for cattle ranching and timber.
Three men already serving prison terms in connection with the slaying recanted earlier testimony implicating De Moura. Authorities charged that De Moura and an accomplice paid $25,000 to have the troublesome "old woman" killed.
At the trial, a convicted gunman testified that he felt "threatened" by the petite nun, a suggestion denounced as absurd by her family and friends, who said Stang was dedicated to nonviolent protest.
De Moura had denied knowing Stang, although he acknowledged providing shelter to the two gunmen after the slaying and then going on the lam for 45 days.
A defense attorney, Americo Leal, recounted episodes from U.S. history such as the atomic bombing in Japan and the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to bolster his allegation that the Ohio-born nun "shares this DNA of violence."
But the argument didn't convince the jury of seven, which voted 5 to 2 for conviction, sufficient under Brazilian law.
Another rancher, Regivaldo Galvao, is accused of being a co-conspirator in the crime. He remains free on bail.
After the slaying, a government report cited a "consortium" of plotters it believed was behind the crime.
"We want to see the whole consortium of killers in the Amazon face justice," David Stang said. "My sister was just one victim among the hundreds. But this is a start."
Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo, Brazil, contributed to this report.