BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Rights groups representing scores of Brazilian workers who they say were trafficked into slavery during the 1990s said they expected the top Americas human rights court to rule in their favour in the first case of the kind it has heard.
The case heard by the Inter-American Human Rights Court last week 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 a vast cattle ranch in Brazil's northern state of Para.
"Workers were subjected to death threats and were not free to leave the ranch. They didn't have any type of toilet, and their drinking water was the same water used by cattle," said Viviana Krsticevic, head of the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), one of two rights groups representing the victims, and who gave declarations at the court.
Most of the 340 workers were freed during five labour inspections carried out by Brazilian state authorities at the 8,500 hectare ranch, the Fazenda Brasil Verde, from 1989 to 2002.
The case of the Workers of Fazenda Brasil Verde v. Brazil was brought to the court by rights group CEJIL and the Pastoral Land Commission, the social arm of the Brazilian Catholic Church.
"This is the first case of trafficking with a purpose of labour exploitation and the different types of modern-day slavery, including debt bondage and forced labour, the court is hearing," Krsticevic, a lawyer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Activists hope the case will allow the court to outline the responsibilities of states signed up to the Americas Convention of Human Rights, including Brazil, in preventing slavery and compensating freed slaves.
"It's very important that the court gives a statement about what are the parameters of slavery and how to identify and distinguish modern-day slavery because it's not clear in the Convention," said Dominican friar Xavier Plassat, who coordinates the Pastoral Land Commission anti-slavery campaign.
Rights groups first brought the case to the court's sister organisation, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which ruled in November 2011 that the Brazilian government was responsible for forced labour and debt bondage "analogous to slavery" found on the ranch.
It also ruled that the Brazilian state had failed to investigate and punish those responsible for the disappearance of two teenagers who worked at the ranch.
The Commission later decided that Brazil had failed to act on its recommendations, including providing financial compensation to freed slaves, and submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
COURT TOLD BRAZIL KNEW OF SLAVERY
Francisco Eguiguren, a commissioner at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, told the hearing the Brazilian government knew that slave labour existed on the ranch but had failed to prevent and prosecute those responsible.
"Reports from these visits and or inspections from 1997 to 2000 ... show that the conditions observed qualified as conditions of slave work in that ranch," Eguiguren told the court.
"If people were rescued it means they were not free to leave," he added.
During the hearing, state attorney Boni de Moraes Soares, representing the Brazilian government, said there was no evidence to prove armed guards were working on the estate and were preventing workers from leaving.
"Brazil fights against forced labour," Moraes told the court. "We have big challenges but we have also implemented solutions too," he added.
Moraes said Brazil had made tackling slavery a top priority over the past decade and had introduced a series of laws and measures to combat the problem.
In 1995, Brazil officially recognised the active use of slave labour in the economy. That year, the Labour Ministry launched a Special Mobile Enforcement Group that works with prosecutors and police to find and raid farms, construction sites and premises of companies suspected of using slave workers.
Since then, around 50,000 people have been freed from slave-like work, according to government figures.
But 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 labour are only fined.
"In Brazil, no one to date has been in prison for enslaving someone," said Plassat, who gave declarations to the court.
The court is expected to give a ruling on the case in four to six months.
"I'm absolutely positive about the court's ruling," Krsticevic said. "I'm very hopeful that finally there will be a tribunal that will give justice to the victims."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change.