Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Madeleine case in a right old muddle

News of the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seems to be going round in circles. ‘Revelations’ turn out to be old stories recycled. ‘Key suspects’ come and go and are then brought back again. ‘New leads’ seem to be leading nowhere.  
The Mirror yesterday (March 25) declared: “Mirror investigation reveals that sicko David Reid was hiding in the Algarve at the time Madeleine McCann was taken from Praia da Luz.” The Daily Mail followed with much the same story.
Far from this being news, Reid’s criminal record and presence in the Algarve village of Carvoeiro was written about by the News of the World in 2006. Similar reports appeared in newspapers in Portugal in May 2008.  
A popular musician and well-known locally as ‘Irish Dave’, Reid admitted he had served 18 months of a three-year sentence for indecent assault and gross indecency, as a result of complaints from his own children.  
But he insisted he was not a paedophile and told reporters in 2008 he was “glad the skeletons are out of the closet.” He hoped people would let him “live in peace.”  
Of course he was not counting on a ‘revelation’ as a result of a Mirror ‘investigation’ six years on.
The gist of the latest statement from the Met police in London on their investigation also sounded remarkably similar to what has long been in the public domain, but the so-called ‘quality’ press, along with the tabloids, churned it out as if it were not only a hot new lead, but even “a breakthrough.”
The Met statement appealed for further information on “a potential linked series of twelve crimes which occurred between 2004 and 2010, mostly in low season, whereby a male intruder has gained access to mainly holiday villas occupied by UK families on holiday in the Western Algarve.”
In four of the cases, the intruder is alleged to have sexually assaulted five white girls, aged between seven and ten years, in their beds.
Senior ex-police officers, led by former detective inspector Dave Edgar and hired by parents Kate and Gerry, looked into sexual attacks on at least five English girls between 2004 and 2007. Their findings were described in some detail by the News of the World in May 2009.
Kate McCann also wrote about the assaults in her book published in May 2012: “One of the most concerning and upsetting pieces of information to emerge quite early was the record of sexual crimes against children in the Algarve. This discovery made me feel physically sick. I read of five cases of British children on holiday being sexually abused in their beds while their parents slept in another room. In three further incidents, children encountered an intruder in their bedrooms, who was presumably disturbed before he had the chance to carry out an assault.”
Yet even The Times last week felt moved to report that “A sex attacker who preyed on young British girls holidaying with their families on the Algarve is a key suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seven years ago, police said today.”
Other “key” suspects over the past few months have included Gypsies, British cleaners, bogus East European charity workers and two mystery German-speaking men, but according to the latest Met statement, witnesses described the supposedly lone sex attacker as “having dark (as in tanned) skin with short dark unkempt hair.”
The Met did not identify the latest “key” suspect, but a headline in the Guardian the day after the Met appeal read: “Madeleine McCann suspect died in 2009.”
It called this a “revelation” gleaned from “a source close to Portuguese investigators.”
We had read it all before, of course.
Early last November, the Daily Mail, among many other papers, named and carried a photograph of a 40-year-old black African, saying the Portuguese police believed he may have killed Madeleine two years before he died in a tractor accident.
 This disclosure came soon after all the BBC Crimewatch fuss over new e-fit images that turn out not be new at all, depicting a man who certainly did not look like a black African.
The Guardian’s source said the dead man had been at the centre of Portuguese police inquiries since they reopened the case last October, but they had not drawn any definite conclusions about him.
He “could” have been involved in the five assaults on white girls - and even the disappearance of Madeleine - but it was no more than a “possibility,” the source said.
The Guardian also ran a story last week headlined: “Madeleine McCann: a breakthrough that could be devastating.”
It did not mean devastating to the widow of the smeared African, a man with no record of child molestation and no opportunity to defend himself.
The Guardian explained that by identifying a series of sex attacks, the Met Police had made a breakthrough in its investigation, but that based on similar cases, “it could mean an end to hopes that Madeleine is alive.”
It is a hope many have long abandoned. Even Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, the senior British investigating officer, has conceded she may have died in the apartment.
Portuguese detectives and prosecutors, as well as specialist British investigators and a British police dog handler, came to that conclusion years ago.
The former lead detective in the original Portugal investigation, Gonçalo Amaral, reiterated in a recent interview his firm belief that Madeleine died in the apartment the same day or night she disappeared.
As reported in the Algarve Resident, he claimed his investigation was marred by high-level political involvement, which left DNA samples untested and key witnesses overlooked.
Amaral and his many supporters completely reject the notion that Madeleine was abducted - and, indeed, there is no hard evidence to support the theory.
In using the term ‘abduction’ or ‘kidnapping’ of Madeleine McCann, the mainstream media rarely qualify this assertion with words such as ‘alleged,’ ‘possible’ or ‘suspected.’
Nor were such words used when Redwood said last week:  “The Metropolitan Police Service continues to offer a reward of up to £20,000 for information leading to the identification, arrest and prosecution of the person(s) responsible for the abduction of Madeleine McCann from Praia da Luz, Portugal on 3 May 2007.”
Twenty thousand pounds! It’s a far cry from the £2.5 million reward offered within days of Madeleine’s disappearance, and a drop in the ocean compared to the millions Kate and Gerry have since received in donations, on top of the amount the Met has spent so far in its fruitless search.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lisbon reaction to Russian ‘landgrab’

The Ukrainian Ambassador to Lisbon and the non-governmental Association of Ukrainians in Portugal this week added their voices to the near universal condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s sovereign territory that has led to the spectre of war.
Prior to the fast-tracked treaty signed by Russia and Crimea on Tuesday, Ambassador Oleksandr Nykonento denounced Sunday’s referendum and said the vote in favour of Crimea re-joining Russia did not represent “the real will of the people” as it was conducted under “a foreign military presence.”
While acknowledging that Portugal “has already given support to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the ambassador said he would like “this voice of support to be more consistent and more practical.”
He also indicated he was not happy with the response of the EU to the growing crisis in his country. He hoped for more solidarity from the international community, particularly the EU.
 It is understood that the Ukraine wants strong political support of its territorial integrity; urgent financial support to keep afloat its economy and social support system during a transitional period; long-term economic facilities to support structural reforms and integration into EU markets.
Portugal’s Foreign Minister Rui Machete said after a meeting in Brussels on Monday that the EU was fully behind Ukraine and that there should be no doubt as to its political and economic support.
Meanwhile, the sanctions proposed so far by both the EU and the US against what has been described as Russia’s ‘landgrab,’ have been widely dismissed by international commentators as “feeble” and “toothless.”
By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech in Moscow on Tuesday was unequivocal and defiant. Crimea, he declared, “always has been and always will be an inalienable part of Russia.”
During a debate in parliament in Lisbon two weeks ago Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho called for “for mediation and for moderation” in the way people express opinions on the crisis in Ukraine. “It’s an appeal we make to all our European partners, but also to all international institutions,” he said.
The Association of Ukrainians in Portugal, the biggest body representing the second largest immigrant community in this country, says it intends to continue holding what it calls ‘awareness-raising’ protest rallies outside the Russian Embassy in Lisbon until Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine.
The association’s president, Pavlo Sadokha, has described Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine autonomous region of Crimea as “illegal and in breach of international law,” and likened it to Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938.
 “Ukraine is a multicultural state respectful of its minorities, and it should continue like that. In Crimea, unfortunately, the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities are subject to discrimination, especially in these days of occupation.”
Mr Sadokha added that Russia’s intervention was “a challenge for the stability in Europe and the world. It is a matter for all of us.”
The prospect of armed conflict arising from the present tense situation has prompted more than 50 Ukrainian men taking part in the Lisbon rallies to submit their names for enrollment in the newly formed National Guard of Ukraine.
If Russia goes ahead and formally absorbs Crimea into the Federation - as now seems certain – or broadens its intervention in the Ukraine, it could lead to a humanitarian crisis with large numbers of refugees seeking sanctuary elsewhere in Ukraine or abroad.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Gypsies on the road to integration

Deep-rooted discrimination and disaffection persist between the Gypsies and the wider public in Portugal, but there are signs that the ethnic divide is crumbling. Leading voices on both sides are calling for an end to the negative stereotyping of the Gypsies, and for the Gypsies themselves to interact more positively with mainstream society. Integration seems to be replacing countless years of intolerance and intransigence, but it is a painfully slow process.
The Roma, as they are more formally referred to internationally, maintain their own distinct cultural identity. They continue to live in close family groups, some still nomadic, others more or less settled in encampments or council housing scattered all across Portugal.
 Widely disliked within the mainstream population, the Roma are perceived as dishonest. Misinformation and myths abound. Lack of communication not only clouds proper understanding, but stokes animosities and fears on both sides. It is a vicious circle.
Two very different projects give some idea of what is currently being done to help make a breakthrough. Short, medium and long-term measures are contained in a ‘national strategy for integration’ adopted by the Portuguese government last year.
Complementing this at a very personal level, the Peta Birch Community Association in the Algarve is bringing specialist health care, medicine, food, clothing and essential supplies  to the children of Gypsy families in the Albufeira area. They are doing this with the help of other organisations, such as ACCA (Associação de Solidariedade com as Crianças Carenciadas do Algarve).

Racist stereotyping has gone hand-in-hand with bigotry and persecution ever since the Roma arrived in Europe from India via North Africa six centuries ago. In Nazi Germany, the Gypsies like the Jews were subjected to concentration camps and mass murder.
Without a homeland of their own, millions of Gypsies speaking different languages live in diverse communities all over Europe as well as in the Middle East and the Americas.
The Roma population in Portugal is estimated to be between 40,000 and 60,000, with concentrations in Lisbon, Setúbal, the Alentejo and the Algarve. The largest communities in the Algarve seem to be in the Portimão, Loulé and Faro municipalities. Virtually all Gypsies in this country have Portuguese nationality.
A report last year by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) said the difficulties faced by the Roma in Portugal were mainly in the fields of employment, housing, health and education.
The ECRI said that while there were still serious human rights issues, “important indicatives have been taken to improve the situation.”
Top of the list is the national strategy, which the ECRI was pleased to note, “is based on the principle that integration is a two-way process and that it involves the participation of local authorities, civil society and Roma people in all stages of design, monitoring and evaluation.”
The High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue (ACIDI), a Portuguese state institute, is behind an on-going programme aimed at improving Roma access to services and equal opportunities by introducing socio-cultural mediators to town halls.
Lagoa Councillor Anabela Simão Rocha is among those highly sensitive and sympathetic to the Roma. Far from being transitory, a Gypsy community has existed in the Lagoa area for more than five decades, she says. A number of families have been living in an integrated council housing bairro in the village of Porches within the municipality for several years.
On whether the fears and mistrust of the public are justified, she commented: “There are good and bad among all groups of people. Our experience is that Gypsies are mostly law-abiding people who deserve our respect.”
This view is shared by Samantha Birch of the Peta Birch Community Association whose Roma Family Welfare programme brings her into day-to-day contact with deprived Gypies.
In response to whether Gypsies are proportionally responsible for more crimes of theft or drug dealing than other groups, a Polícia Judiciáia spokesperson said: “Our statistical records do not take into consideration race, religion or nationality.”
João da Cruz Reis, an astute, 42-year-old Gypsy pastor living in Porches whose evangelical work means he travels to Lisbon, Madeira, the Azores and Spain, told us of how attitudes and social behaviour vary from community to community.
Some Roma are more hidebound by tradition and less willing to co-operate with officialdom and the wider public than others. Attitudes are changing, but very slowly, he said.
 Some families live on incomes from trading, some get by on state benefits, but the poverty suffered by others can give rise to hostile behaviour, exacerbate family difficulties and cause further inter-community friction.
“The Algarve is a region of socio-economic contrasts and asymmetries and this is also true for Roma communities living in this region,” says AISI High Commissioner Rosário Farmhouse.
Gypsies living in encampments devoid of basic sanitation, such the one near the Albufeira marina, say they would  welcome the opportunity to move into council housing – but none is yet available to them.
“The true traditional way of life for us is finished. It is not like it used to be,” says José da Silva Reis, the head of the Albufeira marina community.  “We have to live together with other people now. We are not discriminatory. For us it is more important to have a proper house, to have our kids in school learning to read and write so they have opportunities and jobs when they are older.
“Our family is more important now than continuing to live in this way,” he told us looking around his rough hillside settlement of shacks. “If we had to give up our free way of life with our animals for a house and a better standard of living, we would.”
Poor education and inadequate job training, plus a lack of trust on the part of employers, contribute to high levels of unemployment among Gypsies throughout Portugal. Only about one in 10 aged between 20 and 64 is in regular paid employment, concluded a recent national survey. About half of the job seekers questioned said they had experienced discrimination because of their ethnic background.
The survey indicated that more than 50% of Gypsies have had no schooling at all and are illiterate. Fewer than one in 10 has completed upper secondary education. The Gypsy leaders we spoke to wholeheartedly agree with the official view that this has to change.
Change is not coming easily. Having welcomed us into her clean and tidy two-roomed shanty home, a young woman whose husband is serving a 10-year term in jail, explained a dilemma facing many Gypsy mothers like herself. She wanted a good education for her two daughters and was well aware that completing secondary school is now legally mandatory, but  traditionally Gypsy girls are expected to get married as young as 13 or 14.
The national integration strategy hopes that by the end of the decade 30% of young Roma adults will complete secondary or occupational education, and that 2% will complete higher education.
While helping to ameliorate suffering among horses owned by Gypsies, in 2012 Peta Birch recognised the need for specialist medical help among children in encampments. Regardless of race or creed, she was determined to help them. Her family founded the Peta Birch Community Association in her memory after she was tragically killed in a car accident last year.
While currently working in close harmony with Gypsies providing health care, such as dental, ear and optical treatment, her daughter Samantha says, “in the longer term we hope to promote educational opportunities and work skills.”
The sheer scale and complexity of the situation, plus a dearth of financial and material support because of ingrained mistrust and prejudice among potential donors, makes it hard for a small private charity like the Peta Birch Community Association to operate effectively.
Despite this, the charity is determined to forge ahead and its  Roma Family Welfare project will undoubtedly help bridge the racial divide.

l     Roma Family Welfare contacts:

Friday, March 7, 2014

Portugal’s Ukrainians condemn Putin

Ukrainians living in Portugal say they want peace, democracy and the rule of law in their homeland. They condemn Russia’s President Putin for ‘interfering’ in the current crisis there.
Ukraine is opposed to the rule of force, intimidation and provocations from President Putin’s side,”  Pavlo Sadokha, president of the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal, told us.
Members of the association have been holding regular protest demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy in LisbonThese seem set to continue in the run-up to the referendum in which the people of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea will be asked if they are in favour of becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation and  restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution.
“We are going do everything we can to wake up public opinion and the political establishment in order to stop Putin’s aggression and interference in Ukraine,” said Mr Sadokha.
He contended that misinformation was being disseminated about the current situation and that some sources were exaggerating divisions.
“First,  the Ukrainians are united against Yanukovych’s dictatorship. Now Putin’s aggression has united Ukrainians in an unprecedented way, without regard to language, religion and origin.
“There is a small percentage of people supporting Russia as can be seen in Crimea, but even there a huge part of the population is opposed to the aggression and Anschluss.
“This part of the population, including not only Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, but also ethnic Russians, is being intimidated and silenced under threat of weapons and physical violence.”
He added: “We believe diplomatic and economic sanctions are important and should be further enhanced. The military containment - not war -  is also very important and should be launched.”
There are  about 45,000 Ukrainian expatriates living in this country in addition to the 10,000 who have taken out Portuguese citizenship. They represent the second biggest immigrant community after Brazilians.
 Ukrainians have been immigrating to Portugal over the past 20 years because of the economic hardship and massive unemployment that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
They have been attracted by jobs, particularly in the construction industry, and favourable immigration legislation. After the bloodless ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004 against a rigged run-off  election and amid rising hopes of economic improvement, a number of  Ukrainians returned home.
With the rise of austerity in Portugal, this country is not so attractive anymore and Ukrainians have been moving to better-off countries in the EU, including Germany, France and the UK.
Mr Sadokha confirmed that Ukrainians living abroad not only keep very close ties with their families and developments back home, but hugely contribute to the Ukrainian economy through remittances.

* Ukrainians demonstrating in Lisbon