Bail granted to suspect in Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira murder case

Rubens Villar Coelho, suspected of ‘leading and financing’ armed group, to await trial under house arrest

A man suspected of involvement in the killing of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira has been released from jail, according to reports from the Amazon region.

Rubens Villar Coelho, known by the alias “Colombia”, was set free on Friday, although news of his release came 24 hours later.

Police have not issued a statement about the decision, but reports from the region said Coelho paid 15,000 Brazilian reais (£2,570) in bail and was being allowed to await trial at his home in Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon.

He must wear an electronic ankle monitor and is forbidden from leaving the country. He has surrendered his passport.

“We are very worried with the way things are going,” said Eliesio Marubo, a lawyer for Univaja, a union of Indigenous peoples in the Javari valley, where Phillips and Pereira were killed.

“There’s not a lot we can do. He is free, but there are conditions. We only hope that he isn’t out on the streets.”

“Even though that is a major risk, unfortunately this is what the justice system has decided and we have to accept it. We are going to do what we can to revert the situation.”

Coelho, who is a citizen of neighbouring Colombia, was arrested on 27 July under suspicion, according to a police statement at the time, of “leading and financing an armed criminal group dedicated to illegal fishing in the Javari valley”.

The remote area near Brazil’s border with Peru is a haven for mafia involved in illegal mining, ranching, logging, hunting and fishing.

Although he was arrested and charged for possession of false documents, police think Coelho led one such group dedicated to catching and selling turtles and pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish.

Phillips and Pereira were killed in June on their way back from a reconnaissance trip into the heart of the Javari valley.

The two men were ambushed as their launch sped up the Itaquaí River. Both were shot dead.

The killers were reported to have targeted Pereira because he knew too much about their illegal fishing activity in and around Indigenous reserves there.

Pereira, who was once a senior official in the state’s Indigenous foundation, was working with native people in the valley. He had taken Phillips, a former Guardian reporter, to interview residents of the area for the book he was writing: How to Save the Amazon.

At least three other men are in jail awaiting trial for their murder, including those accused of shooting the two men and then dragging their bodies into the forest to bury them.

Authorities in Manaus reportedly agreed to let Coelho await trial under house arrest at the beginning of October.

One of the prosecutors in the case criticised the decision, saying “it allowed the criminal organisation that is active in the Atalaia do Norte region to return to work as normal”.

“The association’s leader is free to manage them,” said Aline dos Santos in quotes published by the Globo website.


Andrew Downie in São Paulo

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