One of two men accused of killing journalist Manoel Leal de Oliveira has been found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Mozart Costa Brasil, accused of firing six shots at the journalist was sentence on 27 September after a three-day trial. A second man suspected of being the getaway driver of a van used by the two killers, Thomaz Iracy Moisés Guedes, was acquitted for lack of evidence at the same hearing on 24-26 September a Itabuna, in Bahia State.
The main witness, who formally identified Brasil said she had not seen Guedes in the van. The woman who is under a witness protection programme, said she had received death threats after she said she would give evidence. She said her decision was motivated by the charge against Guedes, whom she knew to be innocent. She also formally identified the other killer, Marcone Sarmento, who is still being sought by police. Some observers believe that his arrest would help identify those who ordered the killing.
The trial, one of the most important in the history of Itabuna, given the exceptional nature of the verdict, has created huge local interest. It was followed live on local TV and radio and relayed to the streets around the court building. The case was originally due to open on 18 September but was slightly postponed.
Reporters Without Borders urges the Brazilian press to closely follow the trial due to begin today in Itabuna (Bahia state) of Thomaz Iracy Moisés Guedes on a charge of participating in the murder on 14 January 1998 of Manoel Leal de Oliveira, the owner and editor of the Itabuna-based weekly A Região.
Experience in the fight for justice shows that the news media and civil society have to be alert and involved in order to successfully combat impunity. The media should also follow the trial of another of Leal’s accused killers, police officer Mozart Costa Brasil, due to start before the same Itabuna court on 26 September.
A report on this case, entitled "Bahia: culture of impunity?", was published by Reporters Without Borders in October 2002. Leal was gunned down after implicating the then mayor of Itabuna, Fernando Gomes, in a corruption scandal. Gomes is an ally of former state governor Antonio Carlos Magalhães, one of the leaders of the Liberal Front Party (PFL).
"The Leal case above all exposes the limits of a system which puts a police force controlled by locally 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 report concluded.
According to the report, "The first few months of the investigation by the state of Bahia civilian police could have come from a textbook on impunity... The case was closed in September 1998 without any suspect ever having been arrested and without Mayor Gomes even having been questioned." Judicial proceedings were reopened in May 2000, following revelations in the regional daily newspaper A Tarde.
Guedes is accused of being the driver of the pickup used by Leal’s killers. He was arrested in July 2002. Brasil, a police officer with the economic crimes section of the Bahia state civilian police, was arrested as a suspect in December 2001 and was freed two months later pending trial. A third suspect, Marcone Sarmento, is still on the run. No charge was ever brought against those presumed to be behind the killing, former mayor Gomes and his chief of staff, Maria Alicia de Araújo.