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Brazil 'confident' VW will pay damages in slave-labor case

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Volkswagen appeared Tuesday before a hearing with Brazilian prosecutors to answer to allegations of human-rights violations at a farm the German auto giant ran during Brazil's military dictatorship, including slave labor, rapes and torture.

Prosecutors presented company representatives with a 90-page dossier they say documents years of atrocities committed by VW managers and hired guns at a cattle ranch the company owned in the Amazon rainforest basin in the 1970s and 80s -- the latest attempt to bring justice for abuses committed under Brazil's 1964-1985 military regime.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Rafael Garcia, said the closed-door hearing had concluded with an agreement that Volkswagen would submit a written response by September, with a new audience to be held then.

"The federal prosecutors' office for labor affairs is confident that at the end of the proceedings, we will have adequate reparations for the grave human-rights violations that ocurred," he told journalists.

Volkswagen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors say they have evidence of years of atrocities committed at the property in the northern state of Para, known as Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino.

"There were grave and systematic violations of human rights, and Volkswagen is directly responsible," Garcia told AFP before the hearing.

He said the audience was an initial contact to attempt to negotiate a settlement without opening criminal proceedings.

Volkswagen has said it is taking the accusations "very seriously."

In 2020, Volkswagen agreed to pay 36 million reais ($6.4 million at the time) in compensation for collaborating with Brazil's secret police during the dictatorship to identify suspected leftist opponents and union leaders at its local operation, who were then detained and tortured.

- Crusading priest -

A prosecution task force spent three years assembling evidence in the case.

The dossier contains accounts from victims who say they were lured to the 70,000-hectare (173,000-acre) farm with false promises of lucrative jobs, then forced to cut down the jungle under grueling conditions for Volkswagen's cattle ranch, which became the biggest in Para for a time.

Workers were kept in "debt-slavery" by being forced to buy food and supplies from the farm at exorbitant prices, prosecutors said.

Those who tried to escape were beaten, tied to trees and left for days by armed guards who kept violent watch over the workforce, they said.

In one case, three witnesses said gunmen kidnapped a worker's wife and raped her as punishment after he tried to escape.

VW's 2020 settlement caught the eye of Ricardo Rezende, a Catholic priest who spent years compiling evidence of abuses at Volkswagen's farm after moving to Para in 1977 and hearing what he says were horrifying stories from victims.

Rezende wondered if the company could also be held to account for that case, and decided to share his files with prosecutors, he told AFP.

"You can't fix someone suffering torture by paying reparations. The suffering of the women whose sons and husbands went to the farm and never came back -- there's no reparation for that pain," said the priest, now 70.

"But there could be a symbolic reparation. I think it's necessary."

Rezende estimates hundreds and probably thousands of workers were essentially enslaved from 1974 to 1986.

- VW in the jungle? -

What was a German automaker doing raising cattle in the Brazilian Amazon in the first place?

The story is a window on how the military regime saw the Amazon, and helps explain why the world's biggest rainforest is threatened today.

It was a time when Brazil was urgently pushing to develop the rainforest, which the regime saw as backwards, luring settlers with promised riches.

The government also lured companies. Volkswagen benefited from tax exemptions and negative-interest loans for cutting down the forest to develop a farm, not to mention close ties with the regime, Rezende said.

"On the one hand, Volkswagen loved the dictatorship. On the other, it was a highly profitable business," he said.

"It could have 6,000 people working almost for free."

Authorities say such practices were widespread in the Amazon region, even after the dictatorship.

Holding other companies to account would depend on gathering sufficient evidence, Garcia said.

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