A court in Paraguay has sentenced 11 campesinos to prison for their role in the ‘Curuguaty Massacre’, in which six policemen and 11 farmers were killed during a land eviction.
The farmers were handed a combined 120 years in prison on charges including murder, attempted murder, and trespassing. Individual sentences ranged from four to 30 years.
The ruling sparked protests among campesino groups and social organisations who say the trial was unfair and demanded the sentences be annulled. The judicial process has also been criticised by local and international human rights organisations, especially as the deaths of the farmers were never investigated and no police officers put on trial for their actions.
However, former prosecutor and current vice-minister for national security, Jalil Rachid, said that the verdict was just and lamented that more farmers were not put on trial. “Unfortunately, we only have these  prosecuted, there were more people who fired at police and fled cowardly. We’ll never know who they are,” Rachid told Ultima Hora.
Since 2004, landless peasant farmers had claimed the territory in Marina Kue was public land marked for agrarian reform. They occupied the area to cultivate crops, and over the years were non-violently evicted several times.
However, a local businessman with close ties to the powerful Partido Colorado (PC), which ruled Paraguay for six consecutive decades through to 2008, claimed ownership of the land for private company Campos Morombí.
The Curuguaty massacre occurred on 15th June, 2012, when around 300 riot police moved in to evict dozens of peasant farmers after a court had accepted Campos Morombí claims of trespassing.
Accounts of what happened that day vary wildly. The prosecution led by the Public Ministry claimed that police were ambushed and fired upon by up to 200 farmers, killing several officers, and so responded with legitimate force.
This version is contested by the defence, who say the number of farmers was only around 60-70 (including women and children) and that shots were fired by undercover police officers who had infiltrated their group.
A detailed but unofficial report produced by the Paraguayan Coordination for Human Rights (Codehupy) gathered numerous testimonies from survivors and witnesses which claimed that the farmers had tried to negotiate with the police, who refused to talk and led with violence.
Several witnesses also claimed that some of the campesino victims had been executed by police after the initial gunfight.
However, these accusations were not investigated by the judiciary, which has also drawn criticism from local and international human rights groups for its handling of the case, which was based almost entirely on police reports.
Questions were raised over the handling of the crime scene – the camp was burned by police after the initial inspection – the rejection of evidence presented by the defence, and violations of the right of those accused, which included two minors and three women. There were also concerns after a key campesino witness, Vidal Vega, was murdered six months after the massacre.
In 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee said it was “concerned about allegations of serious irregularities in the actions of the Public Prosecution Service, the judiciary and the security forces in relation to the police raid in Curuguaty in June 2012. In particular, the Committee is concerned about reports of a lack of impartiality and independence in the investigations into the events.”
Furthermore, in 2014, the National Institute for Land and Rural Development (Indert) “categorically affirmed” that the Marina Kue territory was in fact state-owned land.
In the weeks following the Curuguaty massacre, leftist Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was deposed in a swift impeachment trial that was widely criticised for procedural flaws.
His supporters say the Curuguaty massacre was used to destabilise Lugo’s government, which had ended six decades of rule by the PC and had pledged to undertake widespread reforms to address grossly unequal land distribution in Paraguay.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Lugo had ordered an international investigation into the events at Curuguaty, but this was abandoned by his interim successor Federico Franco.
Earlier today, Congressional leader Robert Acevedo confirmed to local media that a group of senators will seek to resurrect this external investigation.