Firefighters in Portugal

Court strike blamed for judge releasing ‘confessed arsonist’

Police believe suspect “could have been starting fires for years”

A criminal investigating judge yesterday released a young man who has allegedly confessed to having started 20 forest fires that broke out in the last five months – and may have been behind dozens more – all because of the strike by court staff.

A judicial source told Lusa: “The investigating judge on duty issued an order for the detainee’s release, justifying her decision with the fact that she was unable to carry out the first judicial interrogation due to the lack of judicial staff, who are on strike. 

The accused was released with a term of identity and residence – the lightest of all possible bail conditions.

In a statement released on Thursday, PJ judicial police announced the arrest of the man (named by tabloid Correio da Manhã as José Miguel Araújo, aged 28) – saying he was suspected of having started at least 20 forest fires in various parishes in the municipality of Ponte da Barca, in the district of Viana do Castelo.

According to numerous online sources however the young man openly confessed authorship of “tens of crimes of arson”.

Braga PJ said that the fires occurred between April 9 and August 28 this year, in the parishes of Vila Nova de Muía, Touvedo, Paço Vedro Magalhães, Vila Chã and Lindoso, which, during that period, were “systematically hit by a simultaneous wave of forest fires, causing alarm among the local population”.

At a press conference also held on Thursday, Braga PJ coordinator António Gomes said that Araújo, who lives in the area, is a construction worker and is socially, professionally and familiarly integrated, adding that his “fascination with fire and the movement of resources” in firefighting was at the root of his behaviour.

Gomes added that the suspect has no criminal record and received education up to the 12th grade – a profile that traditionally does not ‘fit’ that of an arsonist.

“I can’t say whether he’s one of the biggest arsonists in the country”, Gomes went on, but the number of fires in the area in recent years has raised the municipality to one with the highest rates of wildfire ignition.

Gomes confirmed during the press conference that the suspect “provided clarification on some of the situations, conclusive on some fires”, emphasising that the police investigation is still ongoing, with “a strong likelihood of linking this defendant to other fires that occurred in the same area, namely in 2022”.

It was because of the high number of fires in the area that the PJ launched its investigation in the first place. According to Lusa, it was an investigation that involved “significant human resources”.

When authorities finally approached Araújo prior to his arrest, “several cigarette lighters” were found in his car, which simply added to suspicions given that the young man is a non-smoker.

The PJ theory is that Araújo will have started the fires when “travelling in his car between the municipality of Ponte da Braça and the Lindoso area”.

O Minho online, which only identified Araújo as José A., cited a police source as admitting: “At this point the suspect is a completely free man…

The police force reportedly waited until 5pm yesterday “but had to free him”. Araújo was driven in a police car in the direction of his home “as it was legally no longer possible to maintain him in detention”.

Predictably, commentary over social media has despaired at this state of affairs, many referring to Portugal as “a Country of Bananas”. As people point out, there is nothing to stop this young man, who has confessed to starting a number wildfires and is potentially behind many more, from leaving the country.

NB. The court strike on Friday was not a one-off. Further strikes will be going forwards from September 8, designed to show court officials’ discontent with their lot. António Marçal, president of the syndicate of court officials, told Correio da Manhã yesterday, that industrial action so far this year has ‘delayed about five million judicial acts’ and required the rescheduling of around 120,000 procedures.

Sources: LUSA/ Correio da Manhã/ Jornal de Notícias/ O Minho/ Facebook