UN condemns killing of Brazil tribal chief amid doubts over murder

Allison JACKSON, Eugenia LOGIURATTO
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the "tragic and reprehensible" murder of a Brazilian tribal chief (AFP Photo/YURI CORTEZ )

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - The United Nations on Monday condemned the "reprehensible" murder of a tribal chief in northern Brazil, even as President Jair Bolsonaro and investigators cast doubt on whether the killing was deliberate.

Police deployed to a remote region of Amapa state controlled by the Waiapi tribe are probing last Monday's death of an indigenous leader, whose body was found in a river.

They are also looking into reports that a group of heavily armed miners, known as garimpeiros, on Friday overran a village in the same area.

Rich in gold, manganese, iron and copper, the Waiapi's territory is deep inside the Amazon, which has faced growing pressure from miners, ranchers and loggers under far-right Bolsonaro. On Saturday, he called for the "first world" to help exploit the "absurd quantity of minerals" in the rainforest.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the "tragic and reprehensible" murder and linked the tribal chief's death to the pro-mining policies of Bolsonaro's government.

"It is also a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land -- especially forests -- by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil," she added.

But Bolsonaro told reporters Monday "the information so far shows no strong evidence that this Indian was murdered."

- No trace of invaders -

Investigators also appeared to walk back on earlier statements that had described the death as a murder.

"We can't say it was a homicide," Amapa chief prosecutor Rodolfo Soares Ribeiro Lopes told reporters.

"There was a death, this death will be investigated so that we can understand the circumstances under which it happened."

A preliminary search of the village reportedly overrun by miners also had found no trace of the invaders, Lopes added.

Hours earlier, Lopes had been quoted by Brazilian media as describing the indigenous leader's death as a "crime" which may have been committed by garimpeiros, hunters or other indigenous people.

And a statement issued by the Amapa attorney general's office on Sunday said the death was a murder.

Members of the federal police and a military police special forces unit tasked with investigating the violence arrived in the village some 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the state capital Macapa on Sunday.

The Waiapi's territory is one of hundreds Brazil's government has demarcated since the 1980s for the exclusive use of its 800,000 indigenous inhabitants. Access by outsiders is strictly regulated.

Survival International director Stephen Corry blamed Bolsonaro's recent comments on opening up indigenous territories to mining for "emboldening illegal goldminers and other invaders."

"He has virtually declared war on Brazil's indigenous peoples," Corry said in a statement.

Since taking office in January, Bolsonaro has been accused of harming the Amazon and indigenous tribes in order to benefit his supporters in the logging, mining and farming industries.

On Monday, he said small-scale mining, or garimpo, should be legalized and indigenous people allowed to mine their own land, instead of being "jailed like a zoo animal."

"NGOs from other countries don't want that. They want Indians to remain jailed like a zoo animal, as if they were a pre-historic human," Bolsonaro said.

Bolsonaro has previously attacked environmental agencies and pledged to crack down on what he has called radical activism.

He also recently questioned the latest official figures showing deforestation increasing by 88 percent in June compared with the same period last year.