Amnesty calls for probe of police in land killings

Amnesty International is calling on Paraguay to investigate all those involved in a violent land clash, including police officers, joining the family members of farmers recently charged in some of the 17 deaths.

Six police officers and 11 farmers were killed in June when clashes broke out during the forced eviction of peasants occupying a disputed soy farm in Curuguaty, 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the capital Asuncion. Politicians opposed to then-President Fernando Lugo seized on the clash to oust him for "mismanaging" the land conflict.

On Sunday, prosecutor Jalil Rachid filed homicide charges against eight peasants, and charges ranging from land invasion to obstruction to being an accomplice against six others. No police were charged.

"It is shocking that no investigation is being conducted into the potential responsibility of the police," Maria Jose Eva, a researcher at Amnesty International, said Monday in a statement from the human rights group. "According to reports, during the confrontation there were more than 300 officers, many of them with firearms, as opposed to only around 90 peasants."

The Amnesty statement said eyewitnesses reported that some of the victims were shot dead after the confrontation ended.

Family members of the peasants charged also criticized prosecutors for not investigating police and for charging their loved ones with what they said was insufficient evidence.

"I have a son killed by the police and two others in jail," Mariano Castro said in Guarani, the indigenous language spoken by most Paraguayans. "I'm offended and upset with prosecutor Rachid because he charged my sons Adalberto and Nestor and six others for murder when he doesn't even know who shot the police agents."

Rachid has said it's still not clear who fired on the police officers and that weapons taken from the peasants did not give positive results in the ballistics tests. But he says his investigation has shown that the police fired in self-defense after being attacked.

Among those accused of complicity in attempted murder, criminal conspiracy and property invasion is Lucia Aguero, who joined a hunger strike earlier this year to protest being jailed without formal charges. She lasted 59 days, and nearly died before a judge said she and three others could return home under police custody until Sunday's hearing.

The dispute that set up the deadly clash goes back decades. Peasants allege the land was stolen from the state by Sen. Blas Riquelme, a leader of the Colorado Party that supported dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989.

Riquelme, who died of a stroke in September at age 82, took over the property in 1964, benefiting from a Stroessner law that granted free title to any adult male willing to farm fallow land.

Local farmers challenged Riquelme's claim, but after eight years of legal battles, the peasants lost patience and invaded a portion of the 135-square-mile ranch in May.

A judge will determine before Dec. 30 whether he accepts or rejects the charges presented by Rachid.

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