Sunday, March 22, 2015

Is the Madeleine case to be shelved?

The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, John Tully, is concerned about the Operation Grange investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann but, contrary to press reports, he has not called for the investigation to be closed.
What is in question is the scale of the operation in the light of severe budget cuts and other demands on the Met. But there is no indication that the investigation is to be terminated.
The Daily Star sparked confusion and a flurry of speculation with an “exclusive” under the headline: “Police urged to shelve Maddie hunt as cops needed in UK to battle terrorism.”
The headline inferred it, but the story did not quote Tully or anyone else as saying the investigation should be shelved.
Following up on the Star story the next day, the Daily Mail Online reported that Tully had called for the probe to be axed.  
The Leicester Mercury, the regional paper where Kate and Gerry McCann live, did not mince its words either: “A police union boss has called for London officers to give up the search for Madeleine McCann.”
Other papers, both in the UK and Portugal, churned out the latest fabrication in a mystery that has become a deep-rooted international obsession.
Asked by Portugal Newswatch about what he actually said to  the press, the federation chairman was adamant:
“At no time did I suggest that operation Grange should be closed.”
What Tully was getting at when speaking with the Daily Star was the wisdom of devoting a team of detectives exclusively to the investigation of a crime that had nothing to do with London.
He said he made his comments “in the light of the force having to save £1.4 billion from the budget.”
He added: “The pressure of work and expectation placed on officers, including the unacceptable situation where other officers are carrying in excess of 30 live investigations, is also an important consideration in these circumstances.”
The Metropolitan Police press bureau confirmed there are currently 31 officers working on Operation Grange and that “their sole investigation is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.”
For now at least, the search for any scrap of solid evidence goes on. DCI Nicola Wall, who took over as head of Operation Grange at the end of last year, was reported in the UK and Portugal media as visiting Lisbon last week to “strengthen links” and for “detailed discussions” with Portuguese prosecutors.
The Week magazine described the talks as “crucial” and said they were designed to “work out next steps” in the investigation. The magazine went on to quote a statement from Kate and Jerry McCann: “It’s very apparent that the determination of the Metropolitan Police remains steadfast.”
Originally requested by Home Secretary Theresa May with the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron, the Met investigation has been ongoing for almost four years at the reported cost to British taxpayers of £10 million. 
There are no indications that the Met are any nearer to solving the mystery. It is not at all clear where the operation is at, or where it is going. All the Met’s press office will say is that “we are not prepared to give a running commentary on this investigation.”
Frustration over the lack of progress is palpable.
The Daily Star accurately quoted Tully as saying it was time to re-focus on what was needed to keep London safe. The Met no longer have the resources to conduct specialist inquiries all over the world, which have nothing to do with London.
“The Met has long been seen as the last resort for investigations others have struggled with elsewhere. But we have made £600m of cuts. We have closed 63 police stations across London. Another £800m of cutbacks are anticipated over the next four years.”
Tully went on to say: “It is surprising to see an inquiry like the McCann investigation ring-fenced. I have heard a few rumblings of discontent about it from lots of sources. When the force is facing a spike in murder investigations it is not surprising there is resentment of significant resources diverted to a case that has no apparent connection with London.”
Officers in London are said to be “bemused” about why they are working round-the-clock solving murders and fighting the threat from Islamic State-inspired jihadists while the Operation Grange detectives are barred from helping.
Meanwhile, almost eight years after Madeleine went missing, a great many people in Portugal as well as the UK and elsewhere are bemused about why the mystery remains unresolved. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Portugal joins St Patrick’s spectacular

The Portuguese and the Irish have more in common than you might think. It’s not just that they inhabit small lands on Europe’s western edge, have a long Catholic history, revel in tradition and have a penchant for getting themselves into terrible debt.
The Portuguese and the English famously claim the world’s oldest alliance. Despite a fracas or two along the way, this diplomatic accord has been in place for hundreds of years.
It turns out, however, that the Portuguese and the Irish have been rather more than just good friends for thousands of years.
Recent scientific research has all but banished the notion that the Irish are descendants of Celtic people who migrated to the Emerald Isle from central Europe during the Iron Age. DNA analyses suggest instead that the inhabitants of Ireland have a distinctive Atlantic heritage shared with the Celtiberians of Portugal and Galicia that dates back to the end of the last Ice Age.
So it is appropriate that this year’s ‘global greening’ celebration to mark Ireland’s national day, March 17, in honour of St Patrick, has been intensified in Portugal.
For this the sixth global greening, the number of iconic Portuguese landmarks flood-lit in Ireland’s national colour has been increased from one to three: the statue of the Duque da Terceira in central Lisbon, the  monument of Christ the King in Almada on the south bank of the Tagus, and the Palace Museum Condes de Castro de Guimarães in Cascais.
The worldwide total of 125 sites bathed in green in 25 countries includes the Coliseum in Rome, the Sacré Coeur in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York, the leaning Tower of Pisa, the London Eye, Niagara Falls, the Grimaldi Palace in Monaco and Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro. 
The lights came on at sunset on the eve of St Patrick’s Day and will continue in some places, including Cascais, until Saturday.
From long ago, and at times due to severe domestic hardships much worse than Troika-imposed austerity, Ireland became one of the world’s greatest sources of hard-working immigrants.
“More than 70 million people around the world claim links to the island of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day is a truly unique opportunity to reconnect them with their heritage,” said Anne Webster, the Irish Ambassador to Lisbon, on the eve of this year’s celebration.
 She pointed out that amid all the colour and the craic, there was good reason to raise glasses to Ireland’s prosperity as it overcomes its problems within the eurozone.
“Our economic recovery has gained a strong momentum in the past 12 months, based on solid growth and job creation, We had the fastest growing economy in the European Union in 2014, with GDP growth of almost 5%, and we expect to retain this lead position in 2015. 
“Unemployment continues to fall from a peak of 15.1% to its current level of 10.1%. Export levels are higher than before the crisis. Our public finances are now on a stable and sustainable footing and we have access to normal financial market funding, at record-low interest rates. Consumers, businesses, investors and global markets have renewed confidence in our economic future.”
Cloaking historic shrines in green makes good business sense too. As the newspaper Diário Ecinómico put it: “It’s an Irish trademark which is seducing more and more countries - and tourists.”
 Ambassador Webster spoke of an international wave of media coverage, with images of greened landmarks in print, TV, online publications and social media, having a hugely important economic and tourism impact at a time when many are planning their overseas holidays.
“This is a joyous two-way process, as images of Lisbon’s magnificent monuments are transmitted internationally, at prime time, to a vast, appreciative and engaged audience.”
But the real significance of the greening in Portugal is of even more fundamental importance: “When you see the beautiful monuments of this region light the night skies with their cloaks of sparkling green, I invite you to think of Ireland, and of the strong bonds of history and friendship which unite our two countries,” said Mrs Webster.

Lá Féile Padraig oraibh go leir!

Happy St. Patrick’s day to all!

Ambassador Anne Webster and President  Cavaco Silva

Palace Museum Condes de Castro de Guimarães 

Monument of Christ the King

Statue of the Duque da Terceira 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

EU on the brink, but the show goes on

As much as we distrust them, politicians are keeping us entertained and often on the edge of our seats. The main criticism is that some of the performances are just so bizarre you couldn’t make them up.
In Portugal, the current prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his predecessor José Sócrates have been indulging in a slanging match reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show.
For those who have missed recent episodes, Passos Coelho has been squirming his way out of criticisms that he failed to declare a series of tax debts.
“I’m not a perfect citizen, I have my imperfections,” the prime minister admitted amid cries for his resignation,
But hang on, others have imperfections too!
“I never used my position as prime minister to hide differential treatment from any citizens, or to enrich myself, make pay-offs or to live beyond my means,” Passos Coelho explained with a twinkle in his eye.
 Retaliating from his prison cell where he has been languishing while investigations continue into allegations of corruption, tax fraud and money laundering, Sócrates castigated Passos Coelho for making “a cowardly personal attack.” He accused the prime minister of “moral depravity.”
With men like this in charge, it is little wonder that critics at home and abroad have viewed Portugal’s economic performance in recent years as wonky if not farcical. 
On the bigger stage, European unity appears to be careering towards the abyss once again despite the interim agreement reached during last month’s Greek melodrama in Brussels.
As you will recall, the eurozone stepped back from the brink by reaching a compromise deal in which Greece was given a four-month extension to its bailout package. In return, Greece agreed to specify the economic reforms it will undertake, rather than copping out of austerity altogether as Tsipras had promised his electorate.
It is still open to question whether Tsipras was reneging on his pledge to Greek voters or trying to tactically outsmart the Troika. Perhaps to deftly deflect such questions domestically, he accused the governments of Portugal and Spain of conspiring to topple his radical regime because they feared the rise of anti-austerity parties in their own countries.
From Portugal’s standpoint, this sounded like Greek gobbledegook. Despite widespread public anger and street demonstrations over the severe austerity measures, there does not seem to be any real appetite in this country to go down the Greek route. A recent opinion poll shows that the centre-right Social Democrats and centre-left Socialists are running neck-in-neck, far ahead of all the smaller parties.
The most extraordinary outcome envisaged by the political pundits in Portugal is a hung parliament in the autumn election, resulting in a grand coalition between the big two. Even Passos Coelho is not ruling it out. “I’m not closing any doors, but I’m not going to draw scenarios,” he said.
Such a coalition would match what happened after last year’s election in Germany. Some commentators are forecasting a coalition between the Tories and Labour after May’s election in Britain. It could also happen this year in Spain.
The present Spanish government has more reason to ‘conspire’ because it faces a very real threat from the radical left in the shape of the anti-austerity Podemos party, which is enjoying a massive surge in popularity and currently leading the opinion polls in Spain.
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has not ruled out a grand coalition between his conservative party and the main opposition socialists, though, as in other coalition-prone countries, eyes are on Germany where serious cracks have started to appear.
As for Tsipras’ conspiracy theory, his insulting remarks sent the European Commission scurrying around in an effort to patch things up.
A Commission spokeswoman told reporters: “We are now in close contact with all actors involved [her words, not mine]... in order to ensure there is unity among EU member states and especially among the EU states of the eurozone.”
A spokesman for the German finance minister sounded very upper crust English when tut-tutting about Tsipras’ accusation. “By European standards, this was very unusual foul play. We don't do that in the eurogroup, that’s not appropriate,” he said.
To his many fans, Greece’s hairlessly handsome Yanis Varoufakis was the star of the first acrimonious instalment of the finance ministers’ melodrama in Brussels. Just before the second instalment got underway this week, a spokesman for Greece’s main opposition party shattered Varoufakis hopes of an Oscar by saying he should be replaced because “he doesn’t know what he is talking about..... every time he opens his mouth he creates problems for the negotiating position of the country.”
The poker-playing Varoufakis smiled and added to the ongoing intrigue by saying his two-month-old government was willing to hold a referendum or even early elections if eurogroup ministers reject Greece’s debt and growth plans.
The Dutch finance minister and current eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem said the plans were not good enough and that Greece must stop wasting time and start delivering.
“We have spent the last two weeks discussing who will meet who, where and in what configuration. It’s been a complete waste of time,” said Dijsselbloem following this Monday’s Brussels meeting, which broke up in disarray after little more than an hour.
Greek particpants insisted the meeting had been a success. And as if confirming that wonders never cease,Varoufakis revealed that representatives of the hated Troika would be welcome in Athens for technical discussions, even though his governement previously said it would no longer have anything to do with the Troika.
No harm in hoping all this eventually turns out to be a horror story with a happy ending. On the other hand, if Greece exits the EU, it will be much more than just a Greek tragedy.
Meanwhile, the show goes on.   

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Understanding economics histrionics

For those of us not savvy when it comes to serious money matters – which includes many more people than you might think – these are bewildering times.
Journalists, along with estate agents, used to be the most disreputable creatures on the planet. Bankers, economists and politicians now hold this distinction.
The latest avalanche of bad economic news started with yet another international banking scandal, this time engulfing HSBC and tax avoidance shenanigans in Switzerland. Details of the scandal and the ensuring furious political row continue to be exposed by leading news organisations privy to thousands of pages of secret files made available via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Feather in the cap.
Trouble is, news of greed and corruption among the rich and powerful has become  so commonplace as to be almost boring.
While some of us were still trying to digest the HSBC turpitude, football fans were treated to the news that Sky Sports dominated a deal for TV rights over the next three years in which the British Premier League will be paid the staggering sum of nearly €7 billion. That works out at €13.5 million per game. The total is 70% up on the last similar auction three years ago and is well over a quarter of Portugal’s bailout debt to the IMF.
The deal means that Premier League players will receive even bigger pay packets than the vast sums they are already receiving. Last year Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney was pocketing €404,000 a week. That’s more than president Barack Obama earns in a year.
Real Madrid has been paying Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo €18,200,000 per year. He makes in seven minutes as much as an average wage earner in Portugal makes in a week.
Someone on €1,000 a month would have to work for 1,376 years to earn Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual salary. Put another way, Ronald earned last year the same as an average wage earner in Portugal would have made if he had started working in the year 639AD. Those on the minimum wage of less than €600 a month would have had to start working in 278 BC.
If you don’t believe it, do the sums yourself. Or seek help from the BBC:
But all this is small change compared with the potential cost of things going badly wrong with the Greeks. Portugal, like the rest of the European Union, is waiting with trepidation as finance ministers grapple over Greek demands said to be threatening catastrophic consequences not only for the eurozone but the economy globally.
In contrast to the grumbling Greeks, Portugal has gained international brownie points by forging ahead and following Ireland with an early repayment of its IMF bailout loan.
Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem told a press conference in Brussels on Monday: “Like Ireland, which recently started its own early repayments to the IMF, Portugal is demonstrating how quickly a country can be back on its own two feet after a successful adjustment program.”
 Greece was the first of several EU countries to ask for financial help. It accepted two massive bailouts subject to certain conditions. Its radical new left-wing government says the conditions have impoverished the country and so it’s not going to abide by them. Other EU countries led by Germany say Greece must honour the deal.
“At the heart of the battle between Greece and its EU partners over its debt crisis are conceptions about morality over debt and economics, issues that have been debated for thousands of years,” according to The Economist.
With the EU perching on the edge of a financial precipice and questions of morality left dangling, Greece’s man-of-the-moment Yanis Varoufakis sat down with other finance ministers in Brussels to play poker. 
Writing in the Guardian as the game with extremely high stakes got underway, Anatole Kaletsky, chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, commented: “Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s new finance minister, is a professor of mathematical economics who specialises in game theory. But his negotiating technique – unpredictable oscillations between aggressiveness and weakness – is the opposite of what game theory would dictate.
“Varoufakis’s idea of strategy is to hold a gun to his own head, then demand a ransom for not pulling the trigger.
“German and European Union policymakers are calling his bluff. As a result, the two sides have become stuck in a passive-aggressive standoff that has made serious negotiation impossible.”
The acrimonious game collapsed in disarray on Monday and again on Tuesday. Yet the Daily Telegraph for one was predicting some kind of “sweetheart” deal that would be “wrapped in obscure language most eurozone voters won’t grasp.”
If such a deal emerges, it remains to be seen if it bamboozles voters in Portugal who go to the polls in a general election this year amid rising anti-austerity anger in this country.
Could economists not have foreseen all this eurozone malarkey and thus avoided it? one might ask.
Criticism of the economics profession has intensified since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 leading many to wonder if economists contribute anything significant to society.
So says none other than Robert J. Shiller, Professor of Economics at Yale University and a 2013 Nobel laureate in economics.  He notes that economists failed to forecast most of the major crises in the last century, including the severe 1920-21 slump, the 1980-82 back-to-back recessions, and the worst of them all, the Great Depression after the 1929 stock market crash.
But just in case anyone wants to totally write off economists, Shiller added: “Yes, most economists fail to predict financial crises – just as doctors fail to predict disease. But, like doctors, they have made life manifestly better for everyone.”
So that’s all clear them, isn’t it? Except, of course if you happen to be a Portuguese family on the breadline because of austerity. Meanwhile, the eventual outcome of the Greek mess is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

McCanns vs Amaral verdict nearing

The verdict in Kate and Gerry McCann’s civil action against the former lead detective Gonçalo Amaral may come sooner than expected because of a recent behind-the-scenes development in the long-drawn-out case.
The question of whether or not Kate and Gerry McCann are legally entitled to represent their daughter Madeleine in their claim for damages has taken a significant step closer to being resolved, according to a source close to the process.
Madeleine was made a ward of court in the UK in April 2008. In January last year, Amaral argued in Lisbon’s Palace of Justice that because Madeleine was still a ward of court the McCanns did not have the legal right to represent her in their Lisbon lawsuit against him and three other parties.
The Lisbon judge, Emília Melo e Castro, gave Madeleine’s parents the opportunity to obtain appropriate documentation about the ward of court matter from the British High Court.
The McCanns had a 30-day set period in which to present this. They did so without delay and much earlier than expected. The documentation was presented to the Lisbon court through the couple’s lawyers on 23 January. None of the defence lawyers has or is expected to raise any objections.
So it is now up to the Lisbon judge to decide the relatively straightforward matter of whether the documentation attests to the McCanns’ right to represent Madeleine. When this is settled, the trial is expected to move towards its last formal exchanges and then, finally, sooner than most people had anticipated, perhaps next month, a verdict.
The McCanns are seeking €1.2 million in damages for the severe distress they say has been caused to them by Amaral’s book, A Verdade da Mentira (‘The Truth of the Lie’), and a subsequent documentary.
The judge’s recent summary of the main points in the case that had been proved or not proved left Amaral and his supporters optimistic about the eventual outcome.
Amaral said this week that he was hoping for an acquittal and the lifting of financial difficulties that have burdened him since the McCanns decided to sue five years ago. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fugitive author C.A.R. Hills back in jail

Charles Hills, who was convicted of plotting to have the lover of his Portuguese mother killed, is back behind bars having lived openly for several years in the eastern Algarve as a fugitive from UK justice.
Originally sentenced at the Old Bailey in London to seven years imprisonment but released after serving only two and a half, the British writer broke the terms of his parole licence and absconded.
He moved into the three-bedroomed house in the Algarve village of Altura that had been at the root of his decision to have his mother’s lover killed. She owned the house and while well into her seventies lived there with Flávio Rosa, a Portuguese gardener and odd-job man 30 years her junior. Married with four children, Rosa resisted eviction following her death in 2003.
After years in the Algarve interspersed with trips to others parts of mainland Europe, Hills returned to England for a six-week visit in December 2013. He arrived via an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich in Essex.
“I thought I might be arrested on landing, so I had a slap-up three-course meal on the boat, costing almost forty pounds, one of the most expensive and one of the best meals of my life,” he wrote in his blog.
“Then I was up for a walk on deck, a leaf through the free copies of the Spectator, and an excellent night's sleep. At half-past-six in the morning I approached the mean and sleepy-looking male customs official at Harwich.
“How long have you been out of England?”
“Oh, a little while.”
“And how long is a little while in your world?”
“Oh, just a month or two.”
“Go on, sir.”
It was an example not only of Hills’ way with words, but his audacity and wry sense of humour.
Entering the UK undetected didn’t work the second time around.
Friends, including the British author Geoffrey Elborn, were expecting Hills to arrive back about the 21st of last November. Only just before Christmas did they discover that police had boarded his plane and arrested him on arrival at Gatwick Airport.
“He was taken to Lewes Prison, where I wrote and had a cheerful letter from him saying he was quite happy there,” said Elborn.
Hills has since been transferred from Lewes in East Sussex to Rochester Prison in Kent. Elborn says he and other friends have not been able to arrange any visits because slots in the visiting rooms have been fully booked.
Apart from tightly controlled personal visits, the contact rules allow prisoners to make but not receive phone calls, and to receive but not send emails.  
“Charles is more or less resigned to being inside until 2016 and I think that he was advised not to appeal,” said Elborn who had a phone call from Hills about two weeks ago.  
“If he did appeal, there would be a chance that his sentence would be increased and, if reduced, he would be given conditions which would probably deprive him of any chance to go abroad and he would be forced to remain in the UK until any new parole term expired. As he has nowhere to live in the UK, he might as well see it through in prison.”
Hills, 59, was born in London where his mother, Maria José dos Reis, a young, post-war émigré  from a peasant community near Mafra, worked for many years, first as a maid and eventually as a silver-service waitress. She  returned to Portugal in 1983 at the age of 60.
After her death in 2002, Charles, her utterly devoted only child, became convinced that Flávio Rosa had exploited confusion caused by Alzheimer’s and persuaded her to alter her will so he could continue to occupy the Altura house.
A legal battle ensued. Eventually the Portuguese courts overturned the will and Rosa was required to move out, but not before Hills’ bungled efforts to hire hitmen.
The only person hurt in his attempts to arrange a murder and disposal of the body was Hills himself. On admitting guilt at the Old Bailey he told the court he was “not a natural born killer.”
Indeed not. Charles was a much respected literary figure. Under the name C.A.R. Hills he had written books, edited the journal PEN News and contributed to other British publications including Prospect magazine, the Guardian and the New Statesman.
When asked a few years ago in the Algarve if he worried about being re-arrested for absconding, he said that although not dogmatic, he held basic Christian principles and so, “It’s in the hands of Jesus.”

* More background on Charles Hills

Charles in the garden of his Algarve home in 2011.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Amaral supporters optimistic about judge’s rulings in McCanns’ libel case

Kate and Gerry McCann seemed to suffer a setback on Wednesday in suing former detective Gonçalo Amaral over his controversial book about the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine.
In Lisbon’s Palace of Justice, Judge Maria Emília Melo e Castro handed lawyers in the civil action a written statement evaluating as proven or not a list of 37 points on which she intends to base her verdict. Neither the McCanns nor Amaral were present.
Amaral supporters said afterwards that the statement made them feel cautiously optimistic.
The McCanns are seeking €1.2 million in damages for the severe distress they say has been caused to them by the book, A Verdade da Mentira (‘The Truth of the Lie’), and a subsequent documentary.
The judge ruled that while statements in the book may have psychologically affected the McCanns, the anguish suffered by the couple over their missing daughter preceded the book’s publication rather than being a consequence of it.
She pointed out that the book was very largely based on facts in police files. While Amaral put forward the theory that the McCanns had hidden Madeleine’s body and fabricated a story about her abduction, he did not say they had killed their daughter, the judge said.
In personal statements to the court last July, both Kate and Gerry McCann spoke not only of the great harm they believed had been caused to their family by allegations in the book, but that the allegations had hampered the search for Madeleine.
The judge said Wednesday it had not been proved that the Polícia Judiciária stopped collecting information and investigating the disappearance because of the book’s contents.
Amaral insisted last year that the lawfulness of his book was “indisputable” because of a decision of the Appellate Court in Lisbon that overturned an earlier ruling banning it.
The McCanns now have time to seek and present authorisation from the British High Court to formally represent their daughter in this case. Madeleine was made a ward of court at the instigation of her parents in April 2008. This could have a bearing on the amount of any compensation eventually awarded.
This long-running case in Lisbon has been suspended several times over the past five years, including in January 2013 when the court allowed the two sides to try to reach a private settlement. No agreement was reached.
No date has been set for a verdict but it is thought to be more than two months away. Even when it comes, the verdict will probably not be the end of the matter. An appeal is likely.
Also, Amaral has let it be known that he is considering instigating a counter defamation lawsuit against the McCanns to seek compensation for the enormous damages on different levels he claims they have caused him.