Brazilian prosecutors charge three suspects in Amazon murders

Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira disappeared in early June in a remote area on the border with Colombia and Peru.

Federal prosecutors in Brazil have charged three men for the murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, a crime that drew widespread attention to increasing lawlessness in the Amazon rainforest under the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

A federal court in Amazonas state on Friday accepted the charges against Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and Jefferson da Silva Lima, according to a statement. The trio were already under arrest and will remain in detention.

“What motivated the murders was the fact that Bruno had asked Dom to photograph the suspect’s boat,” said the statement. The prosecutors added that they considered this motivation to be “frivolous”, a designation that can make sentences more severe under Brazilian law.

The development comes amid growing global criticism of the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, a far-right president who has encouraged more mining in the Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest – arguing it was needed for economic growth.

Bolsonaro also came under heavy criticism for what many supporters of the pair said was a slow response to their disappearance.

On Tuesday, 23 Democratic members of US Congress sent a letter asking the administration of US President Joe Biden to do more to tackle the “broader assault on the Amazon rainforest” and the “impunity” of the killings.

“This human-level tragedy is a symptom of a broader assault on the Amazon rainforest, which is pushing the vast ecosystem to an ecological tipping point,” the lawmakers wrote, according to a letter published on the Huffington Post website.

“Impunity is the watchword for killings in the Brazilian Amazon, and for the future of the Amazon, this case cannot just fade into memory,” according to the letter.

Phillips and Pereira disappeared in early June in the Javari Valley, a remote area on the border with Colombia and Peru. The two men were travelling along the Itaquai River back to the city of Atalaia do Norte when they were attacked. Their disappearance generated intense international outcry and pressure for action. Authorities said one of the men accused of the killings led the way to their bodies hidden in the forest.

Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira’s disappearance generated international outcry and pressure for action and, with the help of Indigenous people, authorities found their bodies in the forest [File: Eraldo Peres/AP]

Pereira had previous confrontations with fishermen when seizing their catch and had received multiple threats. He carried a gun and had left the federal Indigenous affairs agency in order to teach local Indigenous people how to patrol their land and gather geo-tagged photographic evidence of criminality.

On the day they were murdered, Pereira was transporting such evidence to authorities in Atalaia do Norte, and he was shot three times. Phillips, who was conducting research for a book entitled How to Save the Amazon, was killed “only because of being with Bruno, in order to ensure impunity for the prior crime,” the prosecutor’s statement said.

There has been speculation in the Brazilian press that their murder may have been ordered by the ringleader of an illegal fishing network. Police earlier this month arrested a fourth man when he presented false documents, believing he may have some involvement, but no charges have yet been filed.

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