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By Michael Kepp
A Brazilian judge suspended and could potentially dismiss homicide charges against 21 officials of Samarco mining company, Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd., in connection with the rupture of an iron-ore tailings dam two years ago that killed 19 people.
The judge suspended criminal proceedings to determine whether wiretapping of the officials’ phones by prosecutors was legal. If not, it “could result in the annulment of the case,” the judge wrote.
The case stems from the Nov. 5, 2015, rupture of a Samarco tailings dam in Minas Gerais state that sent 62 million cubic meters of iron-ore waste into the valleys below, flattened a village of 600, left 19 dead and polluted the Doce River. Brazil’s Environment Ministry called the spill “the country’s worst environmental catastrophe.”
The executives are charged with qualified homicide, which in Brazil means homicide aggravated by certain factors. When the charges were filed last year, prosecutor Jose Leite Sampaio said the Samarco executives knew or should have known that the dam was unsafe and at risk of failing.
Judge Jacques de Queiroz Ferreira of the first regional federal court in the Minas Gerais state municipality of Ponte Nova suspended the criminal case (No. 0002725-15.2016.4.01.3822) July 4, but the court just publicly confirmed the suspension, a court spokeswoman said Aug. 8. It is not known when the judge will decide how to proceed.
Former Samarco President Ricardo Vescovi and ex-director of Samarco operations and infrastructure Kleber Luiz de Mendonca Terra allege that phone wiretaps between executives charged in the case took place outside the time frame that the judge had authorized.
Those charged include 16 current or former executives of Samarco, the reservoir’s operator, and five current or former executives of Samarco’s two co-owners, the Brazilian iron-ore giant Vale S.A. and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton Ltd, on Samarco’s board of directors. VOGBR, a geotechnical auditor that does reservoir safety inspections, and one of its employees were also criminally charged with presenting false reservoir stability reports.
If convicted, the executives and officials each face up to 54 years in prison: 45 years of that sentence would be related to the homicide and nine would be linked to environmental crimes. The companies also face fines.
Samarco, Vale, and BHP Billiton declined to comment to Bloomberg BNA on the ruling suspending criminal proceedings.
This criminal case is unrelated to civil lawsuits against Samarco and its co-owners seeking billions of dollars. Last month, another Minas Gerais federal judge gave Samarco and its co-owners until Oct. 30 to finalize a settlement-for-damages agreement that would dismiss both civil suits.
To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Kepp in Rio de Janeiro at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The judge's suspension notice is available, in Portuguese, at http://src.bna.com/rwd
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