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Rancher freed over US nun killing

7 May 08 05:47 GMT

A Brazilian rancher jailed for ordering the killing of a US-born nun has had his conviction overturned in a retrial, court officials say.

Vitalmiro Vastos de Moura was acquitted of ordering the death of the environmental activist, Dorothy Stang.

But the court confirmed the conviction of a second suspect, Rayfran das Neves, who had confessed to shooting Ms Stang in 2005.

His sentence was increased by a year, to 28 years in prison.

Sister Dorothy campaigned for poor farmers' rights in Brazil, and to preserve the rainforest from loggers and developers.

Her murder followed a dispute with ranchers over land they wanted to clear for pasture and she wanted to protect.

Family stunned

Mr Moura was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in May 2007, for ordering the shooting, but Brazil requires retrials for first offenders who are sentenced to more than 20 years.

The jury at the retrial in Para state voted five to two to acquit him, according to a court spokeswoman.

The dead nun's relatives said they were stunned by his acquittal.

"The prosecution was excellent. They presented their case very well, so we're very surprised," said her brother David Stang, who attended the trial.

Sister Dorothy's sister Marguerite Hohm had watched the two-day long trial from her home in the US via a live internet feed.

"I saw the judge shaking hands with the defendants and I didn't understand what was going on," Ms Hohm told the Associated Press news agency.

"We're very saddened."

Mr Moura's defence lawyer praised the jury, repeating his position that Moura had no motive to kill Sister Dorothy.

Correspondents say the death of Sister Dorothy became a symbol of the violent conflict for natural resources in Brazil's Amazon region.

In the past 30 years, more than 1,000 people have been killed in land disputes in Brazil, with some two-thirds of the murders happening in Para state.

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