Brazilian activists have condemned the “far-fetched” attempt by the alleged murderers of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips to contend they committed the crime in “self-defence” after supposedly being shot at by the Indigenous activist.
Pereira and Phillips, a British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor, were killed on the Amazon’s Itaquaí River last June while returning from a reporting trip to the remote Javari Valley region, where Pereira had worked defending Indigenous communities from illegal fishing, poaching and mining gangs.
Three local fishermen are being held in high-security prisons awaiting a possible trial for murder: two brothers called Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and a third man called Jefferson da Silva Lima.
Amarildo and Jefferson confessed to the murders in the days after the disappearance of Pereira and Phillips caused an international scandal.
In his signed six-page confession, seen by the Guardian, Amarildo told police he decided to commit the crime after seeing red when he saw Pereira photograph his boat as he and Phillips travelled past his riverside home.
“There goes that guy. Let’s kill him?” Amarildo admitted telling Jefferson, according to that 16 June statement.
Amarildo told police Jefferson had fired the first shot, hitting Pereira in the back, before both victims were killed and buried in a shallow grave in the rainforest. Two days later, on 18 June, Jefferson offered an almost identical version, although he claimed Amarildo had fired first as they chased Pereira’s boat down the river.
However, the pair offered a dramatically different account this week when they appeared before a federal judge who is preparing to rule on whether there is sufficient evidence for the trio to face a full jury trial.
Amarildo and Jefferson claimed they had only shot at Pereira after the Indigenous activist opened fire on them when they passed his boat as they went out to fish. “He started to shoot at us for no reason,” Jefferson said.
Amarildo told the court murdering Pereira “never went through my mind” and that they had acted in self-defence.
Both men claimed their confessions had been given under duress and that Oseney da Costa de Oliveira had played no role whatsoever in the crime.
Activists from OPI, the Indigenous protection group which Pereira helped found, reacted to those claims with anger and derision.
“The thesis of self-defence has no basis in reality,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday, denouncing the defence lawyers’ attempt to portray the respected former government official as an “aggressive, violent” person who had stirred up tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities along the Itaquaí River.
“The families and friends of Bruno and Dom, as well as OPI … reject the attempt to smear their memories with this defence strategy,” the group added, noting how similar “defamatory” tactics had been used in past cases involving the murders of Amazon defenders such as the American Dorothy Stang.
One of the lawyer’s representing the alleged killers of Pereira and Phillips is Américo Leal, an Amazon-based lawyer who defended the rancher sentenced to 30 years in jail for helping mastermind Stang’s 2005 murder. During that trial, Leal notoriously accused 73-year-old Stang of being a fake nun who had come to the Amazon to promote a supposed US plot to colonize the region.
OPI urged the media to contrast the defence team’s “far-fetched and deceitful versions” with “the truth of the facts, scientific evidence, and concrete information” surrounding the murders.
In a statement, the legal team representing Phillips’s family said it was convinced sufficient evidence existed to prove that all three men were involved in the double homicide.
A decision over whether the trio will face trial by jury is expected in the coming weeks.