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Paraguay farmers charged over land killings

Pedro Servin, Associated Press

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) -- Paraguayan prosecutors filed charges on Sunday against eight out of the 14 farmers allegedly involved in a land dispute that left 17 people dead at a soy farm.

Politicians opposed to then-President Fernando Lugo seized on the deadly clash on June 15 to oust him for "mismanaging" the land conflict.

Prosecutor Jalil Rachid said in a press conference that the charges include land invasion, criminal association and murder.

But Rachid said it's still not clear who fired on the police officers when farmers occupied a soy farm in Curuguaty, some 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the capital Asuncion. Six of those killed were police and 11 were farmers.

Vicente Morales, a lawyer for the accused, told The Associated Press that Rachid's murder charges have no basis because he couldn't specify who killed the six policemen or who started the shootout.

The dispute that set up the deadly clash goes back decades. Peasants allege the land was stolen from the state by Sen. Blas Riquelme, a leader of the Colorado Party that supported dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989 and has dominated the nation's politics ever since.

Riquelme, who died of a stroke in September at age 82, took over the property in 1964, benefiting from a Stroessner law that granted free title to any adult male willing to farm fallow land. So many military officers, politicians and businessmen took advantage of the law that by the end of the dictatorship, all of Paraguay's rural state-owned land was in private hands.

Local farmers challenged Riquelme's claim, but after eight years of legal wrangling, the peasants lost patience and invaded a portion of the 135-square-mile ranch in May.

Morales, the lawyer, said land invasion accusations must be discussed further because the justice system has not granted a property title yet to Riquelme's heirs.

Lugo called the shootout a setup. He says his push to redistribute land jeopardized the economic interests of Paraguay's most powerful businessmen, and they created a scandal to oust him.

A judge will determine before Dec. 30 whether he accepts or rejects the charges presented by Rachid.