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Brazil4 October 2002

Bahia: a culture of impunity ? Investigation into the murder of journalist Manuel Leal de Oliveira

October 2002

Violence, impunity and press freedom in Brazil, especially the state of Bahia

Image : fichier : IMG/doc-1504.jpg

(JPEG) Brazilian journalists pay a heavy price for exercising the right to press freedom. The murder of TV Globo’s Tim Lopes (photo) in June 2002 near Rio de Janeiro showed that. But the death of Lopes, a journalist with a leading television network who was killed by a criminal gang in one of the country’s biggest cities, is not typical of the violence that traditionally stalks the press in Brazil.

Most of the 15 journalists killed in Brazil since 1991 worked for small provincial newspapers or radio stations and it was their reports on the misdoings of local politicians or local police abuses that cost them their lives. Unlike the Lopes case, in which the killers were finally arrested despite police complicity, almost all of these murders remain unpunished.

This impunity raises questions about Brazil’s judicial system. Brazil is a federal republic and its constitutions confers substantial authority on the 26 states (and the federal district of Brasilia), especially judicial powers. As a result, the murder of a journalist is exclusively a matter for the state judicial system, which is more susceptible to local pressure, and the civilian police, controlled by local elected officials.

In the northeastern state of Bahia alone, 10 journalists were murdered between 1991 and 1998, most of them for political reasons. The most recent was Manuel Leal de Oliveira, editor in chief of the A Região weekly newspaper in Itabuna. All of these murders have remained unpunished.

Slightly larger than France, the state of Bahia still endures a politically anachronistic feudalism. Brazil’s fourth state in economic importance, Bahia suffered a serious agricultural crisis from the 1970s onward in addition to the difficulties common to the entire country. In the course of this storm, Antonio Carlos Magalhães - Bahia’s all-powerful political cacique and, as chief of the Liberal Front Party (PFL), a leading figure of the Brazilian right - tightened his grip and that of his family over his Bahia fiefdom. It was against this backdrop that Leal was killed on 14 January 1998 in Itabuna, a city 450 kms south of Salvador, the state capital.

The first few months of the investigation by the Bahia civilian police could have come from a textbook on impunity: a witness was murdered, suspects’ alibis were checked out in only the most cursory fashion, key witnesses were not questioned... In September 1998, the Itabuna judicial authorities closed the Leal case without ever having detained any suspect and without ever having questioned the then mayor, Magalhães ally Fernando Gomes, the person most likely to have had a motive in the killing.

A judicial investigation was reopened in April 2000 as a result of articles in the Salvador newspaper A Tarde highlighting the holes in the original investigation. This coincided with a certain loss of influence on the part of Magalhães, widely referred to by his initials ACM.

First elected deputy for the state of Bahia in 1954, then twice for the post of governor, ACM suffered a serious political setback in 2001 when president of the federal senate, the country’s second most important political post and one he had held since 1997. He had to resign from the senate in May 2001 to avoid impeachment, which would have made him ineligible for public office for eight years. The impeachment process had been opened against him because of accusations that, for the purposes of blackmail, he had obtained the results of a secret electronic vote confirming the dismissal or another senator for embezzlement.

Change is perceptible in the state of Bahia. The current PFL candidate for governor, Paulo Souto, has shown a degree of independence toward his mentor ACM. Certain key posts in Bahia, especially in the judiciary, have been reassigned to public figures with a reputation for honesty. The left-wing opposition, especially Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party (PT), has gained ground, including in Itabuna where Geraldo Simões of the PT, who was already mayor from 1992 to 1996, was elected mayor again in the October 2000 municipal polls, beating Gomes.

Two years after the case was reopened, the investigation appeared to have made progress with the indictment in September 2001 of the three individuals who allegedly carried out the murder. Did the original investigators try to protect both those who were behind the killing and those who carried it out? What is the current status of the new judicial investigation? Has it suffered further irregularities? Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network dispatched journalist Martine Jacot to Bahia from 16 to 24 August to carry out an independent investigation with the aim of seeking the answers to these questions. Jacot used to be in charge of the Americas desk at the French daily Le Monde. She was assisted in the field by Marconi de Souza of the A Tarde newspaper, who was responsible for the investigation into the Leal killing which A Tarde published in April 2000 and which led to the case being reopened.

Manuel Leal: "They wouldn’t go so far as to kill me"

(JPEG) Aged 67, Leal (photo) was killed shortly before 8 pm on 14 January 1998 as he arrived by car at his home on 1st Street in the Jardim Primavera district of Itabuna. At the corner of this street, 500 yards from his house, there is a military police barracks with several hundred personnel. Like the civilian police, it comes under the authority of the state of Bahia. Leal’s home is also just 50 yards down from the city’s main police station, which is usually staffed by at least 100 officers.

According to several witnesses, whose matching accounts are recorded in the judicial case file, a white Chevrolet Silverado pickup with three men aboard had been parked in the street, below Leal’s home, since mid-afternoon. Its occupants appeared to be waiting for someone. They got out from time to time to smoke a cigarette or stretch their legs. When Leal’s car finally approached, teenagers were playing football nearby. The pickup started up and drew alongside as Leal’s car pulled up in front of the wooden gate outside his home and Leal got out. Two men alighted from the pickup and one opened fire.

According to the official report, the gunman used a 38-calibre Taurus, the most widely used non-automatic firearm in Brazil, even within the police. He fired his last shots into Leal’s back as Leal tried to flee toward the home of his son Marcel, two doors further down. Meanwhile, the pickup turned around a few yards short of the police station and collected the two men on its way back. It had no choice but to pass in front of the military police barracks as it sped away. Hit by six bullets (two of them in the head and heart), Leal was taken to hospital in his own car by family members. He was dead on arrival.

The first questionable aspect in these case is the fact that Leal’s family members found no more than just a few men on duty at either the nearby police station or military police barracks, although both are usually crawling with personnel. The bulk of the troops were said to have been sent "on patrol in the city." Also, the crime scene perimeter was never secured for a search for clues, and all the police did at the scene was quickly remove the bullet casings.

Early that day, at around 4 pm, Leal received a threatening call at the newspaper. His sole reaction was to wonder out loud, in a proofreader’s presence, whether he would still be alive the next morning. Earlier still that day, José Freitas Oliveira, a former employee of the Leal-owned printing works Colorpress, was told by a friend that a group of individuals had met at around 6 am that morning to make plans to teach Leal a "lesson." This information was passed on to Leal, who did not seem to take it seriously. Finally, according to copies of the official case file, Colorpress employee Flavio Eduardo Monteiro said that he had heard a lawyer say the previous 31 December that Police Superintendent Gilson Prata - denounced by Leal in several articles - was preparing to "teach Leal a lesson he would never forget." Monteiro additionally reported having seen a piece of paper on Leal’s person at the hospital with the words "Roque de Tal X-9" written on it. (The Portuguese expression "de Tal" is the equivalent of "so-and-so" and is sometimes used to conceal identity.)

On several occasions, including the day of his murder, Leal’s friends and family members had urged him to leave town as a precaution. Leal had responded that it was unnecessary, because "they wouldn’t go so far as to kill me."

Embarrassing allegations

Who had an interest in seeing Leal killed? In articles published in December 1997 (the month preceding his death), Leal had denounced the irregular dealings of Mayor Gomes, using as his source documents of the city’s court of accounting that reported the use of false invoices and over-invoicing. He had above all accused Police Superintendent Prata of taking money from the mayor. Head of the economic crimes section, Prata had been tasked by the Bahia secretariat for public security (the equivalent of the interior ministry at the state level) with investigating a tax collection fraud of which the inner circle of the former PT mayor, Geraldo Simões (1992-1996), was supposedly guilty. Leal’s newspaper, A Região, had revealed that Superintendent Prata had received Reals 4,500 (then worth about US$3,700) from the mayor for "assistance in the payment of expenses" during his investigation and that he had even installed himself in the office of one of the mayor’s deputies.

(JPEG) Leal’s newspaper had also targeted Superintendent Prata’s assistants - Police Officer Mozart Costa Brasil (photo) and Roque Souza, an agent with the secretariat for public security - reporting that each of them had received Reals 1,500 (then worth US$1,240) for similar expenses. It also accused Prata of waging a witch-hunt against members of the former municipal council. Every week, Leal also reported the alleged mismanagement of public funds by Mayor Gomes’ team.

Leal, who had launched A Região 11 years earlier in April 1987, was seen as a "polemical" journalist. Agostinho Muniz, the head of the Bahia press association, to which Leal belonged, said Leal liked to be "provocative." It was A Região’s aggressive style that was believed to have been responsible for the newspaper’s success. As was often the case, Leal’s basis for making his accusations in the December articles was official documents, the city’s accounts.

Police in-fighting: the hares and the tortoise

Newly appointed to Itabuna, Bahia civilian police regional superintendent João Jacques Valois, a member of the judicial police, took charge of the investigation from 15 January, the day following Leal’s murder, which quickly began to have a national and then international impact. There was widespread outrage about the tenth murder of a journalist in Bahia in eight years, especially as it involved a veteran.

On 21 January 1998, Superintendent Valois complained to the press about a lack of cooperation from the population. However, the case file shows that he had already taken, and would continue to take, important witness statements which would not be followed up with the necessary verification or investigation.

(JPEG) There was a dramatic development two months later. On 19 March 1998, the ministry of justice revealed that there were three suspects in the Leal case: Marcone Sarmento (photo), an escaped convict; Police Officer Mozart Costa Brasil of the economic crimes section of the state of Bahia civilian police; and a certain "Roque de Tal X-9", informant "No. 9" of the Bahia secretariat for public security. The three names had been given to the ministry of justice by the office of the federal police in Ilheus (30 kms east of Itabuna), which had said in a message to headquarters on 20 February 1998 that, "according to information we have received," these were the three perpetrators of the Leal murder.

This revelation - which bears the hallmarks of a political provocation in the face of foot-dragging in the civilian police investigation - was made in a letter to the president of the National Federation of Professional Journalists (FENAJ), Américo Antunes. It was sent in response to an 11 February letter from Antunes to then federal justice minister Iris Rezende calling for a federal investigation into Leal’s murder.

Published in the press on 26 March 1998, the justice ministry’s letter elicited "surprise" and anger from Superintendent Valois, who said this information was likely to hamper his own investigation. Nonetheless, his own investigation had not included any attempt to question or even locate any of these three suspects. One result of the letter’s publication was that an investigating judge was assigned to the case. This was Ulisses Campos de Araújo. In Brazil, the assignment of an investigating judge is not automatic in a murder case, and may take place at various stages of the investigation.

The justice ministry’s letter to the FENAJ, signed by an aide to the minister, who was known for not being an ACM supporter, nonetheless pointed out that the Leal murder "does not fall within the competence of either the ministry of justice or the federal police." Although asked to refrain from further involvement in the Leal case, the Ilheus federal police did so in May of that year. They had probably been told that the investigation was unlikely to progress as a result of the interrogation of Agent Roque Souza - suspected of being "Roque de Tal" - and Police Officer Brasil. (As a fugitive from justice, the third suspect, Sarmento, was not questioned.) Souza and Brasil (both of whom had been targeted in A Região’s articles, like Superintendent Prata) denied having been on Itabuna on the day of the murder, although they had no alibis of any substance.

On 13 May 1998, the head of the federal police office in Ilheus, Superintendent Rubem Paulo de Carvalho Patury, sent a letter to Superintendent Valois asking him to verify certain information gathered by the federal police, namely that Souza and Brasil had bought a farm in Araças, a city in the state of Bahia, with the money they had received for the murder, and that they had been using three vehicles in the days prior to the murder, a Corsa and two civilian police vehicles with the license numbers JHT 1119 and HZF 8016.

The letter also included Police Officer Brasil’s bank account numbers, and asked Superintendent Valois to find out from his bank’s branch office or the central bank what deposits and withdrawals had taken place in the days following the murder and whether these were compatible with Brasil’s salary. As far as we know, this information, which was published in A Tarde and A Região, has not been the subject of any real enquiries.

On the contrary, Superintendent Valois determined on 13 August 1998 that, after questioning 25 persons, "no conclusion" could be drawn in the Leal investigation "in the absence of sufficient evidence," and that the case should be closed. A summary of the investigation sent to the investigating judge said only two witnesses in Leal’s neighbourhood, Jardim Primavera, recognized a suspect from photographs, the fugitive Sarmento. According to the transcripts of 22 April 1998, these two witnesses - Sadraque Souza Reis and José Carlos Moura - recognized neither Police Officer Brasil nor Agent Souza from photographs. There was no mention of any face-to-face meeting.

(JPEG) Furthermore, although a certain Thomaz Iracy Moisés Guedes (photo) was named by these two witnesses as the driver of the white Silverado pickup, Guedes’ name did not appear in the superintendent’s summary. The summary did however refer to Leal as "a very polemical figure in Itabuna ... in fact, a political partisan given to embellishment in his writing." It also complained of the "substantial time lost identifying the origin of the information coming from the federal police which, for its part, protected its sources."

On 22 September 1998, Investigating Judge Campos recommended that the case should be closed, pending the emergence of new elements. Although theoretically able to have requested any interrogation, search, seizure or other investigative initiative he may have deemed useful, he made no such requests in this case and limited his participation to attending some of the interrogations (or at least to recording his presence, as it was contested by some of the witnesses questioned).

The decision to close the case was finally confirmed on 18 November 1998 by Itabuna public prosecutor Marcos Bandeira. Legally, he could have appointed another investigating judge to this case, which was botched, to say the least. But Gomes was still mayor and ACM’s loyal supporters controlled the state judiciary, including Bandeira’s superiors.

What motivated the federal police?

So, the file was buried and the federal police lost out. Why exactly did the federal police get involved? The explanation came from both official and unofficial sources.

(JPEG) According to the victim’s son, Marcel Leal (photo), who took over the newspaper after the murder, his father had many friends in the Ilheus federal police because he had himself worked for a federal agency. For some 20 years he had had a second occupation, which was to verify that businesses in the Itabuna area were paying their employer contributions. It is common in Brazil for someone to have two jobs in order to make ends meet.

At the same time, prior to Leal’s murder, the federal justice office in Salvador had formed a commission of enquiry into organised crime. This commission had been asked if Leal’s murder could be included in its mandate, and it had said no. But it had asked the federal authorities in Brasilia to form another commission of enquiry just to look into the 10 murders of journalists in the state of Bahia since 1991. The ministry of justice did not follow up on this request but in the meantime, the federal police in Ilheus seem to have assumed they were authorised to pursue their own enquiries.

Finally, the constitution limits the authority of the federal police to the investigation of crimes related to terrorism, drug-trafficking and international contraband, and crimes against federal elected officials and civil servants, but in practice they can investigate any crime independently of local police forces if requested by the ministry of justice in Brasilia. This raises questions about the role of the then federal government in this case. Did it want to destabilise public figures considered close to ACM?

Three times better paid than their counterparts in the civilian and military police, federal police agents are also better equipped and less tied to local political interests.

"There’s no such thing as a perfect crime, just a poorly investigated one"

After it was closed on 18 November 1998, there were no further official developments in the Leal case until April 2000.

(JPEG) From 4 to 9 April 2000, reporter Marconi de Souza (photo) of the Salvador daily newspaper A Tarde published a series of articles on the 10 murders of journalists in the state of Bahia. His reporting on the Leal case highlighted the many holes in the civilian police investigation and, as far as possible, pursued the leads identified by the federal police. It named former Mayor Gomes, his chief of staff Maria Alice de Araújo and Police Superintendent Prata of the Salvador economic crimes section as those who might have been behind the murder.

An Itabuna investigating judge, Cinthia Portela, requested the judicial reopening of the case on 24 April 2000 on the grounds that the flaws highlighted by A Tarde constituted "new elements" from the legal viewpoint. On the basis of the case file and the omissions reported in the press, she issued an official request for a long list of investigative initiatives. Accepting Portela’s arguments without any delay, Prosecutor Bandeira officially reopened the case the following day. Superintendent Valois’ successor in Itabuna, civilian police regional superintendent Gilberto Mouzinho, a member of the judicial police, was put in charge of the new investigation. "There’s no such thing as a perfect crime, just a poorly investigated one," Superintendent Mouzinho bragged to the press. Nonetheless, he did not carry out all of the investigating judge’s requests, and he has been detained since 18 July 2002 on a charge of having run a local gang that trafficked in drugs and stolen cars.

(JPEG) Judge Portela’s (photo) list of requests shows the serious shortcomings of the first investigation, which was carried out by Superintendent Valois and endorsed by then Investigating Judge Campos. In essence, the requests were as follows:

-  Interrogate Mayor Gomes, his chief of staff, De Araújo, and Superintendent Prata, none of whom had until then been questioned.
-  Arrange a face-to-face between Monteiro, the witness who said he saw the piece of paper with the words "Roque de Tal X-9" among Leal’s personal effects at the hospital, and the forensic doctor who denied ever having found this piece of evidence.
-  Reinterrogate Oliveira, the retired former employee who said a friend told him that a group had been preparing just hours before the murder to teach Leal a "lesson." In the course of this interrogation, make Oliveira understand that he would be abetting in a cover-up if he did not reveal the friend’s name;
-  Interview the two witnesses in Leal’s neighbourhood who saw the murder vehicle but who were not shown photos of the suspects.
-  Reconvene all of the witnesses in Leal’s neighbourhood to show them new photos of the suspects (as they had told the press that the photos they were shown very small, passport-size, or blurred); also submite them to face-to-face.
-  Recheck the alibi of Agent Roque Souza, who claimed that on the day of the murder he was working for a private surveillance company founded by Police Officer Brasil, which is located in the Salvador suburb of San Antonio de Jesus.
-  Recheck the alibi of Police Officer Brasil, who claimed he worked that day for the economic crimes section in Salvador (to which he is assigned) but presented no hard evidence of this. He just gave the statements of two colleagues in Salvador and a mobile telephone bill that proved nothing (as his call to a Salvador television programme that day could have been made from anywhere).
-  Interrogate the person who sold a farm to Police Officer Brasil shortly after the murder.
-  Actively search for fugitive suspect Sarmento, especially as Itabuna residents said he resurfaced from time to time in the city after the murder.
-  Check all the state-owned white Silverado pickups.

For reasons unknown, Judge Portela waited until 17 September 2001 to make an additional formal request for investigators to check out a police vehicle with the license number HZF-8016. This was one of the vehicles which, according to the federal police, had been used by Agent Souza and Police Officer Brasil. At the same time, the local press had suggested that it was a Silverado, and belonged to Police Officer Brasil.

A new witness surfaces...

Superintendent Valois’ replacement in Itabuna by Superintendent Mouzinho had taken place in February 2000. It opened the way for a new witness, Roberto Figueiredo, to emerge from the shadows with sensational allegations.

Figueiredo had been a member of the Itabuna civilian police since 1983 and, on the day of the murder, was at its headquarters, located just 50 yards from where it took place. He claimed to have seen Police Officer Brasil emerge twice from the white Silverado pickup parked near Leal’s home. He said he greeted him the first time because he knew him, in fact he sometimes worked for Brasil’s private surveillance company.

He also claimed to have told this to Superintendent Valois the day after the murder and that Valois seemed surprised, asking how he knew Brasil. Figueiredo confided to Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network that Valois had refused to take his statement and tried by every means to dissuade him from talking. In desperation Valois finally implicated him in a credit card trafficking ring in Itabuna, Figueiredo claimed. The judicial authorities ended up dropping charges against him in this case but Figueiredo had already been dismissed from the civilian police in November 1999.

(JPEG) Figueiredo additionally maintained that the teenagers playing football in the street had also recognized Police Officer Brasil (photo), who was easily identifiable by his red hair and very pale, freckled complexion. He also claimed to have heard Superintendent Valois speak by telephone at the police station with Superintendent Prata and Maria Alice De Araújo, Mayor Gomes’ chief of staff, on several occasions in the days following the murder.

...another disappears

In his statement, finally taken by the investigating judge on 7 July 2000, Figueiredo also alleged that one of his friends, taxi driver Leopoldino "Popo" Nobre, had told him several days after the murder that he had transported fugitive suspect Sarmento from Ilhéus airport to the home of De Araújo, Mayor Gomes’ chief of staff, on the morning of the murder. De Araújo herself reportedly paid the fare. Sarmento was well-known in Itabuna from the time of Gomes’ first term as mayor (1988-1992), when Gomes had appointed him to be in charge of the city’s lighting and trash collection.

Figueiredo stated that he tried to convince the taxi driver to come to the police station to make a statement to Superintendent Valois but the taxi driver finally declined for fear of local political consequences. Figueiredo said he then took it upon himself to report what the taxi driver had said to Valois. The taxi driver was found murdered a few days later, on 9 February 1998.

The name of Guedes, already identified by witnesses as the Silverado pickup’s driver at the time of Leal’s murder, resurfaced as one of the suspected perpetrators of the taxi driver’s murder, while Guedes’ son Thomaz Jaci was viewed as the leading suspect. Father and son were arrested at the start of 2000 and held in custody for 54 days. Shortly after their release, Jaci was murdered outside the family home in San Antonio de Jesus on 16 March 2000. In an interview for the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) in June 2000, Guedes said he was present that day when four men came to kill him and his son, but he managed to flee. He also claimed that he recognized the four as members of the Itabuna civilian police.

Those presumed to have been behind the murder

In her testimony to Prosecutor Bandeira, De Araújo (Mayor Gomes’ chief of staff) acknowledged having known Sarmento (the fugitive suspect) "for 13 years." She said her husband was the godfather of Sarmento’s daughter and her son was the godfather of one of Sarmento’s sons. She confirmed that Sarmento used to hold positions of responsibility at the city hall but she had not seen him for the past "six years" because she knew he was in trouble with the law. (In fact, he had escaped from prison after being convicted for murdering a police officer in 1995.) She denied having received him at her house the day of the murder. She also denied knowing Police Officer Brasil, Agent Souza or Guedes.

Former Mayor Gomes also acknowledged that Sarmento worked for the city hall during his first administration, from 1988 to 1992, and he also denied knowing Police Officer Brasil or Agent Souza.

Currently running for the post of deputy for the state of Bahia, Gomes refused to meet with the Reporters Without Borders/Damocles Network investigators. De Araújo, who continues to be his chief aide, also refused.

In an attempt to verify whether Sarmento arrived in Ilheus by aeroplane on the morning of the murder, as the taxi driver had alleged, the investigating judge requested incoming passenger lists from the airlines in Ilheus. This yielded nothing: the airlines either said they had carried no passenger of that name (he could have used a false name) or they had not kept any record. The investigation into white Silverado pickups in the state of Bahia also yielded nothing conclusive, the police said.

Currentstatus of the judicial investigation: limited progress

Afterallthe enquiries, interviews and various face-to-face encounters requested by the investigating judge or the prosecutor, or both, it can be concluded that:
-  Only one witness, Figueiredo (the former police officer), maintains that Police Officer Brasil was in the white Silverado pickup on the day of the murder;
-  Another witness, Moura, continues to say he saw Sarmento (the fugitive);
-  A third witness stands by his statement implicating Guedes;
-  A fourth witness, Monteiro, claims to have seen "Roque de Tal X-9" written on a piece of paper in Leal’s possession at the hospital.

On the recommendation of Investigating Judge Portela, arrest warrants were issued on 20 September 2001 by Prosecutor Bandeira against Police Officer Brasil, Guedes and Sarmento.

Police Officer Brasil, who had never stopped working for the economic crimes section in Salvador, was arrested on 24 December 2001, that is to say, three months after the warrant for his arrest was issued. He was released on 25 February 2002 by a writ of habeas corpus. While awaiting trial, he has gone back to work at the economic crimes section where he agreed to receive the representatives of Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network.

He told them he had never met "either Manuel Leal, Marcone Sarmento, Thomaz [Guedes] or even Maria Alice de Araújo." He also claimed that the only time he had spent in Itabuna was "from June to September 1997" when he was working on the investigation under Superintendent Prata and was to-ing and fro-ing between there and Salvador. He said that on the day of the murder, he was in Salvador where he was carrying out investigations "all over the place." He acknowledged that the statements of his colleagues which he had produced as an alibi might seem open to doubt inasmuch as he was not at his office that day. His colleagues are to be questioned again.

The second suspect, Guedes, was arrested in July 2002 for the theft of a truck’s contents and has since been held in Salvador. Aside from his implication in the Leal murder, he was also charged in mid-August 2002 in connection with the murder of taxi driver Nobre. In his interview for the IAPA in June 2000, Guedes denied taking part in either murder. Furthermore, he told judicial officials he was ready to undergo any test or face-to-face encounter that was considered necessary. According to Guedes, his incrimination in the Leal murder is due to his close physical resemblance to the taxi driver Nobre. A face-to-face with the witness who claims to have recognized him has been scheduled for 13 October 2002.

The third suspect, Sarmento, is still on the run.

(JPEG) After the face-to-face on 13 October and the further verification of Police Officer Brasil’s alibi, Prosecutor Bandeira (photo) should be in a position to draft his conclusions. For each of the suspects, he can either dismiss the case for lack of evidence, declare them innocent, redefine the charges or request trial before a nine-member jury if he deems that there are sufficient grounds for the accusations.

The holes in the judicial investigation

The police appear never to have carried out any specific investigation into the "illegal" work relations between Police Officer Brasil, Agent Souza, Guedes (who also worked for Brasil’s private surveillance company) and Figueiredo. Brasil’s apparent sudden increase in wealth after Leal’s murder has not been investigated and there has been no serious attempt to find out about the telephone calls made between the suspects’ landlines and mobiles in Itabuna except just after the murder. Moreover, although one of the suspects from the very outset, Agent Souza has never been the subject of judicial proceedings and no explanation has ever been given in the case file for this omission.

Furthermore, Superintendent Valois has not yet responded to the summons to appear for questioning issued by Prosecutor Bandeira on 23 April 2002. This is a matter for concern, as the case file shows that he did no more than maintain the semblance of an investigation.

Two other men should be questioned before the investigation is terminated. One, a former police officer who emerged from the shadows in mid-August 2002, claims to have seen the murder vehicle, the white Silverado pickup, enter the military police barracks shortly after the murder. The other witness told the Itabuna news media that Sarmento was protected by members of this military police detachment during the days following the murder.

Finally, despite the instructions contained in Investigating Judge Portela’s first formal request, Superintendent Prata has never been questioned by police or judicial officials, and no explanation is available for this either. Transferred in 2000 from the economic crimes section to the downtown police station in Salvador where he is "coordinator of controlled products" (carriage of firearms), Superintendent Prata pointed to the fact that he has never been summoned for questioning as "proof" that he was not involved. Nonetheless, he could have been questioned simply on the grounds that he was Police Officer Brasil’s superior during the investigation into economic crimes in Itabuna, aside from the fact that he was targeted in Leal’s articles.

To his detractors, Prata pointed out that he was never the subject of an administrative investigation or judicial proceedings during more than 20 years as police officer. He denied ever having met Sarmento or Agent Souza and said he had run into De Araújo, the former mayor’s chief of staff, no more than "one or two times in the city hall corridors." He also claimed that the only time he stayed in Itabuna was from mid-June to November 1997 and that he was on vacation in Orlando (Florida) with his family at the time of the murder.

As regards Leal’s accusations against him, Prata told the representatives of Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network that this was "not a scandal" but an arrangement that had been endorsed by his superiors. "When I was given this task, it was agreed, in the very offices of the secretary for public security and in the presence of Mayor Gomes, that the city of Itabuna would pay the investigating team’s expenses during its stay." He added, "So I had no potential motive." This view was not shared by the current secretary for public security, Katia Alves, who also met with the representatives of the two organisations. She said it constituted "very serious misconduct" for a superintendent of the economic section to be receiving payment from a mayor while investigating alleged fraud under the previous mayor. She said she had been unaware of this accusation and would investigate.

Conclusion: a system that protects murderers?

It can be concluded from the enquiry by the representatives of Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network that the first investigation into Leal’s murder conducted by Superintendent Valois from January to September 1998 suffered serious irregularities: several witnesses were not questioned, important face-to-face meetings were not staged and information about suspects was not checked out. Furthermore, Superintendent Valois deliberately ignored a key testimony. It also appears that collusion between Superintendent Valois and Investigating Judge Campos facilitated the initial, premature closure of the case.

The judicial investigation was reopened following the revelations in the daily newspaper A Tarde. Despite the detailed request for additional investigative initiatives, the enquiry has since made only limited progress. Although three individuals have been charged with carrying out the killing, the accusations against them appear to be relatively weak. The judicial investigation also remains incomplete: witnesses remain to be interviewed, a key figure has still not been summoned, another refuses to present himself for questioning and the links between the suspects remain vague. At best, the investigation will result in the conviction of two of the persons who carried out the murder, and will fail to establish who was behind it.

Although complex, the Leal case above all exposes the limits of a system which puts a police force controlled by local elected officials - in this case, the state of Bahia’s civilian police - in charge of investigating the murder of a journalist who had targeted one of these elected officials. The lack of convictions in the nine other murders of journalists in Bahia during the 1990s raise questions about the existence of an autocratic political system that allowed the ruling party’s elected officials, with little difficulty, to "eliminate" journalists who set about exposing their financial skulduggery.

Recommendations of Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network:

For Prosecutor Bandeira
-  Summon Superintendent Prata for questioning as a witness;
-  Investigate movements in and out of Police Officer Brasil’s bank accounts;
-  Investigate the links between Police Officer Brasil, Agent Souza and former police officer Figueiredo, especially through Brasil’s private company in San Antonio de Jesus;
-  Investigate the telephone calls made between the suspects in Itabuna on their landlines and mobiles;
-  Explain the lack of judicial proceedings against Agent Souza, although identified as a suspect from the outset;
-  Identify and interview the witness who claimed that, shortly after the murder, he saw the white Silverado pickup enter the nearby military police barracks, commanded at that time by Major Geraldo Santana; - Identify and interview the witness who claimed to the news media in Itabuna that the fugitive suspect Sarmento was protected by members of this military police unit in the days following the murder;
-  Provide protection for witnesses who believe they are in danger;
-  Organise a face-to-face between Superintendent Valois and Figueiredo.

For Secretary for Public Security Katia Alves
-  Order an enquiry into Superintendent Prata’s statements about the payment of his expenses by the Itabuna city hall in 1997 while he was investigating presumed financial irregularities under the previous mayor, Geraldo Simões;
-  Order an administrative investigation into the presumed serious misconduct and collusion of Superintendent Valois and Investigating Judge Campos in obstructing the investigation of the Leal case.

For the civilian police
-  Execute the warrant for the arrest of fugitive suspect Sarmento as soon as possible.

For senators
-  Adopt a proposed judicial reform that provides for the "federalization" of judicial proceedings in any human rights crime or serious violation, including murders of journalists. This draft reform, which was passed by deputies in Brasilia on its first reading, would assign investigation of these cases to the federal police.

For the candidates in the presidential and senatorial elections
-  Help combat the impunity enjoyed by the murderers of journalists by coming out in support for the proposed judicial reform that would put the federal police in charge of investigating such murders.

In the event that the suspects in the Leal murder are not brought to trial, or are acquitted, Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network would be duty-bound to file a request with the Brazilian justice ministry’s Council for the Defence of the Rights of the Human Person (Conselho da Defesa dos Direitos da Pessoa Humana - CDDPH) for the investigation into this murder to be started all over again by the federal police. The purpose would be to identify and prosecute not only all those who carried out this murder but also those who were behind it. If this initiative were successful, all the suspects would be tried under the federal justice system.

  In this country
1 May - Brazil
Victory as federal supreme court repeals dictatorship era press law
12 December - Brazil
Four new arrests in investigation into abduction of O Dia employees
3 September - Brazil
Call for boost to media safety ahead of elections after journalist injured in Mato Grosso do Sul state
23 July - Brazil
Legislators urged to oppose cyber-crime bill likely to threaten online free expression
9 July - Brazil
A Folha de São Paulo and Veja win appeal against “premature electoral propaganda” fines

in the annual report
BRAZIL - Annual report 2002
Brazil - 2003 Annual Report

3 October 2002 - Brasil
Bahia : uma cultura de impunidade? Inquérito sobre o assassinato do jornalista Manuel Leal de Oliveira

Americas archives
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Americas press releases
3 June - United States
President Obama urged to raise freedom of expression in his Cairo speech
29 May - Venezuela
Open letter to President Hugo Chavez to protest about official hounding of Globovisión
27 May - Mexico
Crime reporter abducted and killed in Durango state
20 May - Cuba
Anyone can browse the Internet... unless they are Cuban
15 May - Cuba
Journalist gets three-year jail sentence

Sign the petitions
Miguel Galván Gutiérrez
Fabio Prieto Llorente
United States
Chauncey Bailey