Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Crisis in Ukraine: agony and apathy

Ukrainians, who comprise the second largest immigrant community in this country, have been viewing the ongoing crisis in their homeland with growing alarm, and also with some disappointment over a perceived lack of interest among the Portuguese people.
Tuesday’s face-to-face meeting between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents in the Belarusian capital of Minsk was the latest development in a fast-moving scenario that in February saw former President Yanukovych fleeing to Russia and the setting up of a pro-European government.
Russian forces helped separatists seize power in Crimea, which Russia formally annexed in March, prompting US and its European allies to impose sanctions on Russia.
Pro-Russian elements went on to stoke separatist sentiment that led to fatal clashes in eastern and south-west Ukraine.
A Malaysian airliner was shot down in rebel-held territory in July and in August Russia has sent hundreds of aid trucks to rebels across the border in what the Ukrainian government describes as a direct invasion.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has now dissolved parliament in the capital Kiev and called for early elections in October as the battle against pro-Russian insurgency continues.
Most Ukrainians in Portugal have been supportive of the government in Kiev and have clearly displayed this in protest letters and at rallies outside the Russian, French and German Embassies in Lisbon
On the other hand, pro-Russian sentiments have been expressed by a minority of Ukrainians here and also by the Portuguese Communist Party.
Pavlo Sadokha, president of the biggest association representing Ukrainians in Portugal, told us that since the beginning of direct Russian aggression and the annexation of Crimea, Russian propaganda has radicalised the views of a small number of immigrants originating from the eastern regions of Ukraine.
“The Communist Party of Portugal and other related organisations have actively relayed the Russian propaganda. These promoters invited the rare but radicalised pro-Russian Ukrainians to witness‘rampant Nazism and fascism in Ukraine,’” he said.
Efforts by Mr Sadokha’s organisation to alert the Portuguese to Moscow’s aggression and explain that it will not stop in Ukraine have not brought the hoped-for results.
Portuguese political leaders have said little openly on the subject since Foreign Minister Rui Machete declared after a meeting with his counterparts in Brussels in March that the European Union was fully behind the Ukraine and that there should be no doubt as to its political and economic support over the Crimea dispute.
It took the shooting down of the Malaysian Airways plane with the killing of 298 people to overcome the general apathy among the Portuguese, said Mr Sadokha.
“Before the tragedy with the plane, the Ukrainian community planned rallies before the embassies of Germany and France in Lisbon. The Ukrainian community protested against an excessively mild position of the leaders of these countries towards the Kremlin aggression, and in the case of France against the sale of Mistral military ships to Putin's Russia, he said.
“The downed plane finally attracted considerable attention of the Portuguese towards these protests.”  
But since then the agony in Ukraine has worsened and while Portuguese national newspapers continue to run reports on the situation, most politicians and people here are firmly focused on the myriad economic and social problems at home.

* A Ukrainian protest outside the Russian Embassy in Lisbon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sir Cliff Richard: a villain or a victim?

Sir Cliff Richard has maintained a low profile in Portugal this week while preparing for a return to Britain to face police questioning about his alleged sexual assault on a young boy. 
 Many thought it almost inevitable that Sir Cliff would one day be investigated for alleged child abuse and yet when the news broke it came as a shock.
The allegation of sexual impropriety was quickly eclipsed by a scandal in which investigating police and the BBC have been accused of collusion and orchestrating a public spectacle that has been branded a ‘witch-hunt.’
Sir Cliff, who was relaxing at his holiday home in the Algarve, suddenly found himself named and shamed globally because of a single complaint from an unknown individual about an as yet unverified assault nearly 30 years ago.
The way in which the police and media have handled the matter remains highly questionable. Serious ethical questions have been raised.
For starters, should someone be publicly identified by the police and have their name splashed on TV and in newspapers before they have even been interviewed let alone charged?
Gossip about the singing star’s sexuality had been rife for decades, of course. And since the outpouring of revelations about Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and other entertainers, the Internet has been abuzz with suggestions that Sir Cliff would sooner or later be exposed as a paedophile.
The shock news hit the headlines last Thursday (14th August) with a live-on-TV police raid on Sir Cliff’s Berkshire home. When eight plain-clothed police officers arrived in five unmarked cars to search Sir Cliff’s penthouse property within a gated community, a BBC helicopter was already hovering overhead and another camera crew was at the front gate.
The BBC led with a report that the search, which lasted five hours, had been instigated by an alleged historical sex offence involving a boy under the age of 16.
Just a few hours before the raid, Sir Cliff had left his Algarve vineyard estate and travelled to the Alentejo with his youngest sister, Joan Pilgrim. They returned the next day.
By then Sir Cliff had described the sexual assault allegation as “completely false” and expressed anger that the police had apparently alerted the press before contacting him.
The following day, the galloping story of the search and assault claim appeared on the front page of most of Britain’s national papers and in many others around the world. Most people on the planet not otherwise preoccupied by a nearby war were soon aware that the iconic singer was in big trouble.
Trolls galore rushed to make asinine comments on social media. Droves of devoted fans countered with expressions of support on Facebook and Twitter, but it was already too late. As the saying goes, mud sticks.
What exactly had Sir Cliff done to deserve all this? It was far from clear, but obviously the media had enthusiastically latched on to the fact that Sir Cliff is famous and in danger of becoming infamous.
Apparently the allegation against him came from a man in his 40s who had watched a TV documentary about Jimmy Saville and then contacted the producer of the programme, the investigative journalist Mark Williams-Thomas. The allegation and other information was duly passed on by Williams-Thomas to Metropolitan Police Service detectives conducting the Operation Yewtree sexual abuse inquiry.
Last weekend the South Yorkshire Police revealed they had been contacted “weeks ago” by a BBC reporter who had found out about their supposedly highly confidential investigation into Sir Cliff’s alleged assault, said to have taken place in 1985 at an event in Sheffield that featured the US preacher Billy Graham.
 The South Yorkshire Police said they had been “reluctant” to co-operate with the BBC, but believed if they did not the BBC would run the story anyway, potentially jeopardising the police investigation.
So the police struck a deal whereby the BBC was given exclusive information in advance of the Berkshire raid in return for delaying publication of their story.
Amid a flurry of reported denials, claims and counter claims from both the police and the BBC, Keith Vaz, chairman of the House of Commons home affairs committee, said: “The police have a duty to act with fairness and integrity. Incalculable damage can be done to the reputation of individuals in circumstances such as this.”
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve called the police’s handling of the case “odd.” A prominent human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, questioned both the judgement of the BBC and legality of the search warrant used by the police.
Former home secretary David Davis said the “extraordinary decision” of the police to allow filming outside Sir Cliff's home demonstrated that there is “something sick at the heart of Britain’s police and justice system.”
The police condemned the live coverage in an official letter of complaint to the BBC’s director-general, pointing out that the corporation appeared to have contravened its own editorial guidelines.
Despite all the huffing and puffing, the police expressed gratitude for the press publicity on the search because it resulted in a number of people coming forward with further information. They would not say whether the callers included more alleged victims or potential witnesses, but the plot was thickening.
So far, the police and the media had blackened a person’s name even though that person had not been confronted with any evidence of wrongdoing or given an opportunity to properly respond.
While being buoyed by a tight coterie of friends and advisers, Sir Cliff’s has had a visit from a highly-rated British solicitor, Ian Burton, whose legal firm has represented the likes of former Harrod’s owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, football manager Harry Redknapp, PR agent Max Clifford and TV celebrity Nigel Lawson. Ian Burton enjoys the reputation of being a particularly tough and canny lawyer adept at nipping criminal investigations in the bud.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

In defence of bulls and wild birds

Anti-bullfighting campaigners are planning their biggest public protest outside the Albufeira bullring in opposition to what is expected to be one of the country’s most attended bullfighting events of the year.
The campaigners have unveiled a huge billboard by the side of the N125 between Boliqueime and Albufeira proclaiming in Portuguese and English: “Bullfighting = shameful torture. We demand abolition!”  
The organisers are hoping as many protesters as possible of various nationalities will come together for a peaceful demonstration scheduled to start at 8.30pm next Friday (August 22). Police are likely to be on hand to ensure that no one outside the ring comes to any harm - unlike the animals inside it.
 In addition to wanting bullfighting abolished nationwide, one of the concerns of the protesters is what they claim is the failure of the security authorities to uphold the law in regard to under-age children being admitted to bullfights.
Isabel Searle, a founder member of Cidade de Albufeira Anti Touradas (CAAT), says their group have repeatedly asked why the Inspeção-Geral das Atividades Culturais (IGAC) are “doing nothing” to stop children under 12-year-olds being allowed into bullfights.
“They have ignored us,” she said.
Both the United Nations and the European Commission have expressed concern in the past about the possible affects of bullfight violence on child spectators.
On the other hand, many generations of young people have witnessed bullfights in Portugal and Spain and many today would claim they have not been traumatised or emotionally affected by the experience.
The CAAT group have written to the president of the Albufeira Câmara asking him to look into safety aspects of the bullring building, which they claim has badly deteriorated over the years.
“The Câmara president has ignored us as well. We are simply not being given answers,” said Ms Searle.
Those in favour of bullfighting believe it to be a traditional art form, a deeply-rooted integral part of Iberian culture steeped in ritualistic grace and confidence in mastering the bull.
“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour,” wrote Ernest Hemingway.
Appalled by such notions, opponents see bullfights as an outmoded and cruel form of entertainment, mainly for holidaymakers, mostly from the UK and elsewhere in northern Europe where animal cruelty is generally outlawed.

*  Protesters will meet at the roundabout of ‘ Corcovada  in the parking lot opposite Roberto´s chicken restaurant at 8pm and then march the 50 metres to the bullring at 8.30pm. 

 As with bullfighting, the shooting and trapping of wild birds is entrenched in the culture of Portugal. A new hunting season has just started. The following is an extract from the e-book People in a Place Apart.
« Most at risk are migratory species that pass through southern Europe in vast numbers on their way to and from wintering grounds in Africa. Among the Mediterranean countries, Malta, Italy and Cyprus are probably the worst offenders in terms of sheer numbers of birds killed, but Portugal, especially the Algarve, is not far behind, according to Dr Colin Key, a resident ornithologist and strong advocate of greater protection.
Traditionally, wild birds were shot by the poor in Portugal to put food on the table. Now it is sport. Although there are regulations on where and when hunting is allowed and what species may be killed, the regulations are often ignored. Attitudes are undoubtedly changing as a result of the spread of information and enthusiasm about wildlife, especially among the young. “Hunting with guns and dogs is now the preserve of the middle-aged and older generations. Also, Portugal is now ‘on the map’ for visiting foreign birdwatchers, especially the British, and this has lead to an awareness of the value of ecotourism. The situation is improving, but it is a slow process. The cultural aspects of killing wildlife, whether for food or sport, will take at least another generation to grow out.” »
The hunting season runs from mid-August to the end of February but is restricted to Sundays, Thursdays and national holidays. 

* On the first day of the new hunting season GNR police arrested two hunters for shooting protected species and fined 33 others for firearms and ammunition infringements. Six weapons were confiscated. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

UK envoy upbeat about oldest allies

 Jill Gallard, who has just completed her three-year tenure as the UK’s Ambassador to Lisbon, says that while  Portugal still faces formidable economic problems, in some ways the country is better off than when she first arrived.
Mrs Gallard gave us a cogent appraisal of the current state of affairs just before leaving for London to take up her new post at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as Human Resources director.
She arrived in Portugal in the summer of 2011, six weeks after the €78 billion bailout package had been agreed and a month after the present Government took office.  
“So it felt like crisis time to all of us back then, not just for Portugal but for several eurozone countries,” she recalled.
“The adjustment has been a painful process and many Portuguese - with the support of their extended family ties - are still suffering the impact of austerity measures. But the fact that Portugal made a clean exit from the bailout in May this year was obviously a huge milestone and an important success.
“Growth and exports figures have risen since 2011, unemployment is falling, the deficit has been cut significantly and many structural reforms implemented. All of this is vital to attract more inward investment.
“So in many ways things feel much better than in summer 2011. However, we all know that the economic problems are not over – neither in Portugal nor the rest of the EU. Many EU countries have a high level of debt which will have to be tackled.
“The new President of the European Commission has made clear that achieving sustainable growth and reducing unemployment – especially youth unemployment – have to be the priorities for Europe in the next period. That is the next challenge for all of us,” said Mrs Gallard.
In terms of bilateral relations, Portugal and Britain have a shared objective on EU economic reform so that Europe can tackle the huge challenge of achieving sustainable growth, better competitiveness and therefore reduced unemployment, she said.
“We both strongly support the proposed Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership. We have had a steady stream of ministerial visits in both directions, and this always helps to promote greater synergy between our two Governments.”
She also noted that Prime Minister Cameron and his family have holidayed in this country on two successive years and that the UK makes a significant contribution to the Portuguese economy through the large number of other British visitors – 2.1 million last year and rising.
In terms of commercial relations, Mrs Gallard’s team at the Embassy in Lisbon have exceeded their bilateral trade and investment targets for the third consecutive year, despite the eurozone crisis and tough austerity measures in both countries.  
“In 2013/14 we helped British companies gain €35 million of business in Portugal and supported 400 small and medium sized enterprises seeking business in this country. British companies are increasingly interested in using Portugal as a platform to the Lusophone world, and we’ve worked hard on raising awareness about Portugal’s extensive links with Angola, Mozambique and Brazil so that British and Portuguese companies can partner to gain access to those markets.”
As members of the European Union, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, NATO and the United Nations, the UK and Portugal work together in many multilateral fora, usually with the same shared objectives in mind.  
A further sign of the close links between the two countries was the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s decision to choose Lisbon as the hub for human resources activities for 43 diplomatic posts across Europe. The team in Lisbon is currently being expanded by some 30% to reflect that.
“Part of the reason for the choice of Lisbon is that there is a highly skilled, multilingual workforce in Portugal.” said Mrs Gallard.   
Her job before becoming Ambassador to Portugal was the FCO’s deputy director of human resources. She has now been appointed director of the department, which has a global workforce of 13,000 based in 165 countries.
Her successor as Ambassador in Lisbon will be Mrs Kirsty Isobel Hayes, who is expected to arrive at the end of the month. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Aging rocker wows ‘em at charity show

Seventy-three-year-old ‘bachelor boy’ Sir Cliff Richard was in top form with a voice as strong as ever when he entertained a special gathering at his winery in the Algarve on Monday.
The fund-raising event was in memory of Peta Birch, founder of a charity that helps support children and animals. Before tickets went on sale, the organisers anticipated a crowd of about 50. Close to 500 turned up.
The concert began in full sunlight with a performance by  the Suoniamo Italian youth orchestra whose repertoire included big band jazz classics and pieces from the musical Phantom of the Opera.

After sunset, Sir Cliff turned up in jeans and spoke highly of the orchestra, jesting that they must be older than they looked. He then picked up his guitar and gave a cheeky and cheery solo performance starting with Move It, his first hit, recorded in 1958.
This was followed by Living Doll and a string of other old favourites that had septuagenarian women in the audience wiggling and giggling with delight. After a career spanning more than 50 years and with record sales estimated at 250 million, the old rocker still has it in spades. 
The money raised by the event will be used by the Peta Birch Community Association, a family continuation of the charity Peta Birch ran with tireless enthusiasm and dedication before her tragic death last year in a car accident.
Sir Cliff has owned a holiday home in the Algarve since 1961. During his annual summer visits he takes a close active interest in his own vineyard and the Adega do Cantor (cellar of the singer), which he jointly created with Nigel and Lesley Birch. This year, the adega’s 11th year of production, it will again market red, white and rosé wines in Portugal and export to several countries in northwestern Europe.