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Since November 2016 four members of the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) have been in prison, and another seven could be imprisoned at any moment, for protesting against public land grabbing and supporting the use of this land for agrarian reform.

Fabiana Braga, Claudelei Torrente Lima, Antonio Cloves Ferreira and Claudir Braga, members of the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), live in encampments and settlements in the municipalities of Rio Bonito do Iguaçu and Quedas do Iguaçu, in the state of Paraná. These leaders were preventively detained on November 4. The Civil Police of the State of Paraná carried out this process, which has been named Operation Castrate. This name reveals, on its own, the real objective of the operation: to “castrate” the MST’s actions in the region.

The region where the operation took place is characterized by land conflicts that have involved, on the one hand, thousands of peasants without land, and on the other hand, the lumber company Araupel. These conflicts go back decades, and originated with the illegal occupation of Brazilian land by multinational corporations. Over the past decades, the MST, the most active movement fighting for land in the region, has been severely repressed and criminalized. Until now, the conflicts have resulted in the assassination of four landless workers that were camped in the municipalities of Rio Bonito do Iguaçu and Quedas do Iguaçu. Two of these murders occurred in 1997 and another two occurred in 2016. The more recent murders were carried out by Military Police inside the encampment Dom Tomás Balduíno.

Since 2014, there have been two more land occupations of properties in the region that the company was irregularly using. There have also been several judicial victories, in particular a declaration that nullified parts of the land title held by the company Fazenda Rio das Cobras. This has led to more criminalization of landless leaders in the region, culminating in 2016 with the launching of Operation Castrate.

The arresting of MST members is illegal. These activists are in prison because they are part of the MST, which the Civil Police of the State of Paraná has declared a criminal organization. According to the police, the MST encampments are parallel states, where there is no justice. However, the only justice the police have brought is the criminalization of landless families, while justice concerning the distribution of land through agrarian reform is still yet to arrive.

The arrested MST leaders have already spent more than 4 months in pre-trial detention, a period longer than the law permits for this type of detainment. Until now the lawyers have not had full access to the judicial process, and there is no timeline for when the witnesses will be heard and the MST leaders will be able to prove their innocence. Furthermore, there is not proof that the MST members tried to run away, making more difficult the claim that they will disturb the public order if they are freed, which is a requirement for pre-trial detention. Thus, in this process the MST leaders are considered guilty, until proven to the contrary.

Pre-trial detention is a retaliation against the MST’s political actions in the region, actions that denounce the company Araupel’s crimes and demand that the state implement agrarian reform.

The members of the MST that have been criminalized through Operation Castrate are in prison because they are landless and struggle for land access. If defending your human rights is a crime then all of us, feminists, black populations, homeless, maroon communities, LGBT, and others grassroots activists, are criminals!

We defend the right of the criminalized MST members to respond to the judicial process in freedom. We manifest our preoccupation concerning the accusation that the actions of social movement leaders are crimes. In a state that claims to be democratic, social movements cannot be considered criminal organization. To fight for our human rights is not a crime, it is a right!