By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Brazilian court's ruling that farm owners can be investigated over labor abuses nearly 20 years ago could close a legal loophole that has allowed many traffickers to escape punishment, experts say.
A federal court ruled last week that the statute of limitations did not apply in the case of Fazenda Brasil Verde, a huge cattle ranch in northern Brazil where dozens of people were found working in slave-like conditions.
It upheld a 2016 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that Brazil's 12-year time limit for trying people suspected of using slave labor could not be applied to crimes under international law.
Brazil's record of jailing human traffickers is poor, and some experts said the ruling would make it harder for defendants to use delaying tactics to escape punishment in the future.
"For many years in Brazil, suspects tried to delay sentencing, making court proceedings last as long as possible so that the statute of limitations runs out," said Brazilian anti-slavery campaigner Leonardo Sakamoto.
"This sends a message to those people that this is not a valid strategy any more," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The original case involved 340 men aged 15 to 40, mostly poor, illiterate and of African descent, who activists say were lured under false promises to work on the cattle ranch in the northern state of Para.
Most were freed during labor inspections carried out by Brazilian state authorities at the ranch from 1989 to 2002.
Their case was first brought to the attention of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1998 by human rights groups.
In 2016 the court ruled that the Brazilian government had to investigate the case, pay reparations to victims and stop applying the statute of limitations on cases that fell under the definition of slavery in international law.
The Brazilian government then created a task force of prosecutors to identify victims and investigate the case.
But earlier this year the owners of Fazenda Brasil Verde filed a motion to dismiss in the Federal Court for the First Region, arguing that the statute of limitations had expired.
Lawyers said the latest ruling was unlikely to lead to a flood of prosecutions for historic offences, but some significant cases could be reopened.
It showed Brazil was serious about cracking down on modern slavery, they said.
"If our judiciary system decided to not recognize the ruling, it would send a very bad message to the world," said Ana Carolina Roman, a federal prosecutor who specializes in slavery cases.
"Brazil is sending the message that it's working to fight this stain, this evil, that it respects the determinations of the (Inter-American) court," said Roman, the federal prosecutor.
Brazil officially recognized the active use of slave labor in 1995 and launched a special mobile enforcement group to work with prosecutors and police to find and raid farms, construction sites and companies suspected of using slave workers.
Since then, about 50,000 people have been freed from slave-like work, according to government figures, most of them men who are either illiterate or have not completed basic education.
Rights groups say despite such measures, prosecutions for slavery in Brazil remain low, as they do worldwide, and most people found to be using slave labor are only fined.
Igor Spindola, the lead prosecutor in the Fazenda Brasil Verde case, said he now hoped to bring charges by the end of February.
He said the case had been tough because victims had been difficult to find and there had been significant improvements in labor practises since the abuses were first uncovered.
"This decision supports every argument we will present when we press charges," he said. "So it's a very good sign for us."
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.