Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tourists warned to be vigilant following street attacks in Albufeira

Portuguese police say they are still investigating recent street attacks on holidaymakers that have prompted the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to amend its travel advice to tourists coming to Portugal.

Ian Haggath, 50, from Dunston, near Gateshead in the northeast of England, was ferociously attacked and left unconscious in a pool of blood in Albufeira a fortnight ago. He suffered serious head injuries and died in hospital last Wednesday. 

Described as "mild-mannered and friendly", Mr Haggath was attacked while walking back to his hotel in the early hours of the morning. It is thought he may have been the victim of a gang of youths.

There is speculation the same gang may have been responsible for the death in March of a British soldier, Darren Lackie, 22, from Cupar, Fife, and the non-fatal stabbing of an Irish tourist, David Hoban, 44, from Dublin.

A few minutes before Mr Haggath was set upon, another tourist is said to have been taunted, abused and had stones thrown at him by a gang of four.

Police initially treated Mr Lackie's death as the result of a drunken fall but a fresh inquiry was launched when medical reports showed he had not been drinking heavily. His father, Graham, is convinced his son was killed in an unprovoked assault.

All three men were attacked in the Montechoro area of Albufeira, popular because of its is restaurants, bars and clubs.

About 1.6 million Britons travel to Portugal each year. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office says that the number of violent attacks in Portugal is low but that there is still a need to take care. It has revised its travel guidance to Britons and warned them to remain alert at all times. 

A Polícia Judiciária spokeswoman told me today there was as yet no clear evidence the same gang carried out the three attacks but that investigations were continuing.   

The incidents are causing considerable concern within the Algarve. 
Elidérico Viegas, president of the Algarve's largest hotels' association, blamed the recent rise in violence on the government's failure to properly address the needs of a region whose economy is based on tourism.  

Monday, May 30, 2011

Portuguese police fully co-operating with Scotland Yard on McCann case

The Portuguese criminal investigation police today confirmed they are fully committed to co-operating with the Metropolitan Police review of the Madeleine McCann case and to re-opening the investigation if the Met come up with credible new evidence.

The National Assistant Director of the Polícia Judiciária (PJ), Pedro do Carmo, told me: “We are in contact with the Metropolitan Police. They have informed us what they want to do, to recheck the files. Our colleagues in the UK are fully aware of our commitment and interest in trying to solve this case, to know what happened that night. At this point we have talked and we have a very open relationship. Let's see what comes next.”

The PJ investigation was shelved in July 2008, but Pedro do Carmo made it clear it would be re-opened if the Met comes up with sufficient grounds for doing so. But, he cautioned, "one step at a time. Let's see what happens."

Reports in Portugal at the weekend suggested that not all PJ officers feel at ease with Scotland Yard's involvement. Some are hostile to it, saying they believe the PJ did everything possible to solve the mystery of Madeleine's disappearance and that their professionalism is now being called into question. “The British policemen are not better than our own,” was one sentiment quoted in the Portuguese press.

There has been strong criticism in the UK and within the Metropolitan Police Authority itself of Scotland Yard's involvement.

Criticism aside, the way seems open for a thorough re-examination of the case so far.   

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

“No limits” on review of Madeleine McCann case says Met Police chief

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson says Scotland Yard is putting no limits on its review of the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, reports the Leicester Mercury, a newspaper published in the English county where Madeleine was born and Kate and Gerry still live.     

The paper quotes Sir Paul as saying his force's re-examination of the case would be a "significant piece of work" that could produce recommendations about new lines of inquiry.

"We are not putting any limits on it at this moment in time," he said. "We have no time scales yet because we haven't produced the scoping. It will be a significant piece of work."

He said Scotland Yard's international reputation made it easier for his officers, compared with those of other organisations, to "open doors".

"Sometimes we need to remind ourselves this is about a vulnerable missing child," he said. "I am a professional police officer, and when you get a request to do something about a vulnerable missing child, you should take that request very seriously.

"And then you get into negotiations about, is it right that we do it? Can we bring added value to it? And if we can bring added value to it, what is the right circumstance to allow us to do it to make sure that we are making the best use of the operation resources here and giving a fair return to Londoners?"

While Sir Paul believes it is "the right thing to do," critics claim the review, which will be funded by Britain's Home Office, has diverted resources from other crime victims and is giving special attention to the McCanns not available to the families of many other British persons missing abroad.

Madeleine's parents were in Lisbon this week to publicise the Portuguese edition of Kate McCann's book. Asked about her decision to write and have the book published, Kate McCann told the Sic television channel: “I always wanted to, to write down the truth, really, for my three children, and I guess the reason, or the trigger reason why I actually, why it became a book and why it was published, is because we have to fund the search for Madeleine. And the fund was running low, so we needed to raise the money.”

Gonçalo Amaral, the former coordinator of the Portuguese police investigation, says he welcomes the Met's involvement, but he is bluntly critical of Kate McCann's book, claiming it is offensive to "Portuguese justice, the Polícia Judiciária, those who have searched for her daughter, the Portuguese people in general and the people of the Algarve in particular.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Garry Mann, jailed after 'unfair' trial and extradition, now back in the UK

Garry Mann, who was extradited from Britain in 2010 to serve a two-year sentence in Portugal for alleged involvement in a riot in Albufeira during the 2004 UEFA Football Championship, was transferred last night to a prison in the UK.

The former firefighter and father of six from Kent (pictured right), was tried and convicted in June 2004 in an Albufeira court in the space of 48 hours. A British police officer present at the trial described it as a “farce”.

The organisation Fair Trials International said in a statement today: “Garry had no time to prepare a defence and standards of interpretation were grossly inadequate. The UK courts have repeatedly recognised the serious injustice in his case but said they were powerless to stop Garry’s extradition after his arrest under a European Arrest Warrant in 2009.”

The Chief Executive of Fair Trials International, Jago Russell (pictured below), added: “We are relieved that Garry will now be able to serve the remainder of his sentence back in the UK closer to his family, but this falls far short of justice. We will continue to campaign for reform of the extradition laws that have put him and his family through hell.”

Mann had only five minutes with his lawyer before the trial and did not know what he was charged with until after he was convicted, according to Fair Trials International. He was unable to understand the proceedings due to the poor quality of interpretation. He consented to his deportation to the UK after reportedly being told by the Portuguese authorities that the sentence would not be carried out if he agreed to voluntary deportation.

Upon his return to the UK, the Chief of Metropolitan Police applied for a worldwide football banning order. In August 2005, Justice Stephen Day refused to grant the order, concluding that Mann's Portuguese trial could not be relied on as it was “so unfair as to be incompatible with the respondent's right to a fair trial.”

In October 2008, British police arrested Mann under a European Arrest Warrant issued by Portugal requiring him to serve his two-year prison sentence. His extradition was ordered by the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court in August 2009.

Mann's legal team made a number of challenges to the extradition, which were all refused by the High Court. Lord Justice Moses, however, commented that “a serious injustice” had been committed against Mann. “It is just an embarrassment for everybody, this whole case, and it ought to disappear.”

The court requested that a diplomatic solution be sought. It was hoped the “ECHR or the diplomatic authorities in the UK or in Portugal can strive to achieve some measure of justice for Mr Mann, a justice of which he has been so signally deprived by those on whom he had previously relied.”

The European Arrest Warrant is a fast-track system for surrendering people from one European country to another to face trial or serve a prison sentence. It has removed many of the traditional safeguards in the extradition process. If a court in one country demands a person’s arrest and extradition, courts and police in other countries must act on it.

In 2009, this fast track extradition system was used to extradite over 4000 people across the EU (700 people from the UK alone).

Fair Trials International is a human rights charity which provides assistance to people arrested in a country other than their own. It campaigns for reform to fight the underlying causes of injustice in cross-border cases.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Economic crisis overshadows revival of Madeleine McCann case in Portugal

The focus of attention in the Madeleine McCann saga is expected to shift uncomfortably back to Portugal soon with separate visits by members of the newly-formed special team from the Metropolitan Police and Madeleine's parents.

The groundwork for the visit by the Scotland Yard team was done by Joanna Kuenssberg O'Sullivan, Chargé d'Affaires at the British Embassy in Lisbon. Following discussions with her last week, Portugal's Judicial Police (PJ) offered to co-operate with the Met. The PJ will retain overall responsibility for the investigation, which was formally shelved in July 2008. The Met team will inject their “particular expertise” but it is not clear how that will be done, especially in view of the sensitivities of the case.

Critics in Britain, including two members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, have condemned the Met's involvement as politically motivated and a waste of money. They say it will deny justice to other victims of crime and wonder why the parents of other missing children abroad have not been given similar special treatment.

The Portuguese police have been heavily criticised in the past by the McCanns and the British press for their handling of the failed investigation and will probably not take kindly to any further insulting “we know best” attitudes from foreigners.

That said, there has been plenty of Portuguese-UK co-operation on this case since Madeleine disappeared in May 2007. An Embassy spokesperson told me that “the UK and the Portuguese authorities have been in close contact from the start, and this will continue.” 

It is thought that the Met team, led by Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command, will want to conduct a “cold case review”, which basically means going through all the paperwork again. They will be looking for any vital evidence, anything overlooked or not fully developed during the Portuguese inquiry.

The Portuguese edition of Kate McCann's book, Madeleine, is to be published in Portugal next Monday. According to a report in The Sun newpaper, Madeleine's parents will be in Lisbon for the launch. Neither the McCanns' spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, nor a senior source within the company handling the launch could confirm this today.

Speaking about the Portuguese edition, Kate McCann has been quoted as saying, "I don't feel we have had the chance to tell our side of the story in Portugal yet. I am hoping people will read the book and realise what kind of people we are - loving parents."

Her husband added: “I think there are a lot of cultural differences and sometimes people there (in Portugal) didn't understand why we did certain things and the book will hopefully address that."

There has been little recent interest in the case in Portugal. The four-year-old Madeleine mystery is well down the list of concerns in a country wracked by an economic crisis which has brought  about tax increases, pay cuts, job losses, rising unemployment plus the prospect of further austerity measures and two years of recession.

A three-year €78 billion bailout plan to avert bankruptcy was approved unanimously by European finance ministers yesterday, subject to a raft of tough conditions. That and the general election two weeks after the Portuguese Madeleine book launch are currently the most pressing matters here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Met police to bring “new perspective” to Madeleine McCann case.

Whatever you may think of Kate and Gerry McCann's parenting skills while on holiday in the Algarve in May 2007, you have to admit their efforts to keep their missing daughter in the public eye have been remarkably successful. Four years on, the welter of publicity garnered for Kate's book, Madeleine, has been astonishing. To cap it all, the McCanns have now persuaded the British Prime Minister and Home Secretary to ask the Metropolitan Police to review the case.

One aspect of the publicity that seems strange when viewed from Portugal is the degree to which the British press and government officials believe Madeleine was abducted. The McCanns have insisted all along that their daughter was taken from the Algarve holiday apartment while they were dining out in a nearby restaurant and that she may be still alive. The more prevalent belief in Portugal is that she was not abducted, that she died in the apartment.

Led by book serialisations in The Sun and the Sunday Times this week, the British press has been pumping out stories that accept Madeleine was abducted, not as a possible or even probable scenario, but as an established fact.

For example: “Kate McCann has revealed the devastating abduction of her daughter Madeleine caused her to question her faith,” reported the London Evening Standard. “Kate McCann has revealed that she was plagued with depression and suicidal thoughts after the abduction of her daughter four years ago,” said the Guardian. “Kate McCann has laid bare her shock and outrage after Portuguese police officials made her and husband Gerry suspects in the abduction of her daughter Madeleine,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

The Government’s primary concern has always been and remains the safe return of Madeleine,” said a Home Office spokesman yesterday. But is she still alive?

Perhaps Madeleine really was abducted, but the truth is we simply don't know for sure what happened to the almost four-year-old back in May 2007 because conclusive evidence has yet to be found.

Said British Home Secretary Theresa May last night: "I am pleased to announce that the Prime Minister and I have agreed with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that the Met will now be using its particular expertise to review the case. The Met have skills, techniques and know-how which we hope can bring a new perspective to the case."

No doubt that know-how will mean the Met will remain unbiased, ignore the hype, cut through the conjecture, look for solid evidence and focus on facts. Meanwhile, the British government has felt obliged to say its decision to send in Scotland Yard was not driven by tabloid headlines.

Apparently there have already been high-level talks between the British Foreign Office and the Portuguese authorities on how a joint review of the case might best be conducted. The British Embassy in Lisbon says the UK and the Portuguese authorities have been in close contact from the start, and this will continue.  

Although the official Portuguese police inquiry formally ceased in July 2008, the Portuguese authorities will retain the lead responsibility for the case. The Pólicia Judiciáia have been repeatedly accused in Britain of botching the investigation, but only with their close co-operation can the Met hope to help solve this mystery.  

UK renews appeal to British nationals in Portugal to report benefit fraud.

UK-based fraud investigators at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are determined to crack down on benefit thieves who are living overseas on British taxpayers’ money.

The British Embassy in Lisbon yesterday issued a statement calling on British residents and visitors in the Algarve and other parts of Portugal to cooperate with the DWP and report anyone they know or hear of claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. This can be done by phoning a free phone fraud hotline, 800 208 638.

Fraud officials have joined forces with overseas counterparts to target Brits in countries where the most abroad fraud is carried out, including Spain and Greece, and even as far afield as Thailand and America.

Benefit fraud abroad cost the British taxpayer some £79 million last year. “This money should be going to the people who need it most and not lining the pockets of criminals sunning themselves overseas,” according to the statement.

Fraud investigators work with overseas organisations, such as land registries, as well as the Foreign Office and UK banks.

Top scams include:
  • people not declaring that they have moved abroad
  • unreported deaths – where relatives or other third parties continue to claim
  • working overseas
  • unreported assets – such as properties, savings or even yachts
  • exaggerated disability.

One benefit cheat recently caught after a call to the hotline was Angela Walker, of Birmingham. She had claimed more than £10,000 of income support since 2006, despite living with a partner and living abroad. She pleaded guilty to the charges in November 2010 and must now repay the cash, as well as £100 prosecution costs. The judge also sentenced her to a 12 month Community Order and 150 hours unpaid work.

Another benefit cheat, Robert Telford, pleaded guilty in March to receiving overpayments of income support and pension credit amounting to £30,895 over a period of three and a half years. He must now repay all of the overpaid benefit, as all benefit fraudsters must do. He was sentenced to a 12 month Community Order for 120 hours of unpaid work and was ordered to pay the prosecution costs of £300.

Mr Telford admitted that he had never paid much attention to the leaflets sent to him from the DWP about his benefits, nor had he told the job centre or anyone else that he was going to live abroad on a permanent basis.

Any Brits claiming benefits and intending to abroad, for any amount of time, must tell the DWP before they go as it could affect benefits. Those who go abroad and continue to claim benefits they are not entitled could face prosecution, imprisonment and even the confiscation of their home and possessions. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Portugal faces a battering over bailout

Sales taxes will be increased, health spending reduced, pensions and unemployment benefits cut, and laws protecting workers dropped under the terms of the proposed bailout plan announced this week. Unemployment is forecast to rise to 13 per cent from 11.1 per cent.

Portugal will also face a two-year recession and be forced to sell major state assets in such companies as the utility giant EDP.

All the main parties in Portugal have agreed to the deal but it will not be finalised until the meeting of eurozone finance ministers on 16th of this month. Meanwhile, 250,000 civil servants have been striking today to vent their anger over yet more austerity measures.

It makes uncomfortable reading, but the full 33-page text of the memorandum drawn up by the officials who negotiated the rescue plan can be found by clicking here: http://economico.sapo.pt/public/uploads/memorandotroika_04-05-2011.pdf

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bailout: a "good deal" has been struck

A proposed deal has been struck in Lisbon with Portugal's caretaker government for a three-year bailout loan worth just short of €80 billion.

It's a good deal, trumpeted José Sócrates last night. “This is a deal that defends Portugal,” said the prime minister who resigned when Portugal had no alternative but to seek outside help. The terms would be less onerous than those set for Greece and Ireland, he said. (Sócrates is pictured here with his finance minister, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, announcing the deal).

If accepted by other parties here and within the EU, the bailout plan will rescue Portugal from bankruptcy. Any rejoicing will be short-lived, however.

The nitty-gritty has not yet been revealed, but the plan is likely to include tough conditions that many already hard-up people in one of Europe's poorest countries may find crippling. Those who have been hit in recent months with harsh austerity measures may be clobbered again with further tax rises, pay and pension cuts and less welfare entitlements.

Over the past three weeks, negotiators representing the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the Portuguese state have been faced with awkward deadlines. European finance ministers set a target date of May 16  for final Europe-wide approval of any plan. Meanwhile, campaigning is underway for a snap general election on June 5. Also in June, debt repayments amounting to some €7 billion fall due.

Portugal has got itself into this mess because of pathetic annual growth levels which have driven it deeper and deeper into debt. Recession looms this year and next.

So, have we reached a moment to take stock and contemplate? Portugal's civil servants don't think so. “It's time to fight,” says Ana Avoila, head of Portugal's Common Front of Civil Servant Unions. Schools, hospitals, courts and most public offices are expected to be disrupted by a national strike of civil servants planned for this Friday.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Portugal congratulates United States on the killing of Osama bin Laden

Luis Amado, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Portuguese caretaker government, has issued a statement congratulating the United States for the “success of the mission that caused the death of Osama bin Laden.”

The statement noted that it was the culmination of almost a decade of determination by the American people and their allies “to fight terrorism and fanaticism that have caused so many innocent victims.”

The Portuguese foreign ministry statement continued: “This fight is not against Islam that has also been the victim of cowardly attacks that so cruelly reap countless lives and force people to live in a climate of insecurity and terror, only contributing to the destabilization of the world.”

Amado echoed others in warning that the death of bin Laden does not signal either the end of Al Qaeda or of terrorism committed by extremist Muslims. “It is necessary to maintain the same spirit of cooperation and determination to defend our principles and values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence,” he said.

While bin Laden's death is temporarily dominating the main headlines in Portugal, the country's bailout remains the number one national issue. No decision has yet been made on the rescue package.

The eurosceptic True Finns are still grumbling on the sidelines but Klaus Regling, the head of the European Financial Stability Facility, is being quoted today as saying that no country will veto the bailout plan. “We can imagine a country abstaining, but a veto is impossible,” he said in an interview with a French newspaper.