The law often works excruciatingly slowly and in dark, convoluted ways. Overshadowed internationally by the latest episode in the 12-year-old legal saga being enacted in Britain over the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, there is lingering concern in Portugal about gangster Abu Salem who is facing trial for alleged heinous crimes committed in India two decades ago.
Born into a modest family in the north of India in 1968, Abu Salem rose rapidly from taxi driver and petty crook to billionaire underworld don. He is accused of involvement in extortion, murder and playing an active role in the 1993 Mumbai bomb atrocities that killed more than 250 people and injured 700.
Portuguese police arrested Salem in Lisbon in 2002 along with his Bollywood actress girlfriend Monica Bedi. She went on to serve two years in a Portuguese jail for her association with Salem and possessing forged travel documents.
In February 2004 a Portuguese court approved Salem’s extradition to face charges in India. He was eventually deported in November 2005. The deportation was dependent on Indian government assurances that Salem would not face the death penalty or be kept behind bars for more than 25 years.
Portugal was one of the first countries in the world to abolish capital punishment. It imposed an absolute ban long before joining the prohibition under the European Convention on Human Rights in 1976.
While Salem awaited trial, police in New Delhi and Mumbai came up with further charges carrying the death penalty. A court in Portugal responded in September 2011 by cancelling the earlier deportation ruling. Then last July, with Salem still incarcerated in a high-security Indian prison, the Portuguese Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s cancellation.
Last week while on a visit to India with a business delegation to discuss bilateral economic, trade and social security arrangements, the Portuguese foreign minister raised the matter of Salem’s extradition with his Indian counterpart.
“I think the judiciary in Portugal has raised some issues. The judiciary here in our country will take care of them,” External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said in a joint press conference with Paulo de Sacadura Cabral Portas.
Mr Khurshid conveyed India's “deep appreciation for the positive support” extended by Portugal on the extradition. He said India would “remain compliant with the expectations,” of the Portuguese legal system and judiciary, an assurance of sorts that Cabral Portas found “reasonable.”
Efforts in Britain to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan to face terrorism charges have been going on now for seven years at a cost to the British taxpayer of half a million pounds in legal aid alone. Despite assurances from Jordan, it is argued that confessions obtained by torture would be used against Qatada. While his continued presence infuriates the British government, Justice Minister Lord McNally said this week that the legal protection holding up the deportation request was “part of what makes us a civilised society.”
In marked contrast to all this ponderous deliberation, the attempt by law enforcers in the United States to extradite the former Black Panther, convicted murderer, prison escapee and hijacker George Wright was dealt with in Portugal remarkably swiftly.
Arrested near Lisbon in September 2011 after 41 years on the run, the FBI wanted Wright back in America to serve the rest of his 1972 New Jersey jail sentence. By the time they tracked him down, however, he had morphed into José Luís Jorge dos Santos, 67, a Portuguese citizen married to a Portuguese woman by whom he had fathered two sons in a country with a statute of limitations, even for murderers.
In less than two months, a panel of three judges ruled that the statute of limitations had expired and so Mr Wright a.k.a. Sr Santos could not be extradited. A month later the decision was upheld by Portugal’s Supreme Court and the case formally closed. Wright was suddenly a free man for the first time in 50 years.
Meanwhile, there has been much criticism of endemic inefficiency in the execution of justice in Portugal, so much so that judicial reform was one of the key demands in the €74 million bailout deal. Also, a recent study indicated that the Portuguese are among the citizens of Europe with the least confidence in their country’s legal system.
Flawed as it is, though, some might argue that in some ways, highlighted by the cases of Abu Salem and George Wright, the legal system here is part of what makes this a civilised society.