Freeport investigated

PORTUGUESE JUDICIAL authorities investigating a case of alleged bribery and corruption over the planning permission of Europe’s largest factory retail outlet ‘Freeport’ have asked their British counterparts to hand over vital documents which they say could move the case forward.

The documents, which include a letter dated 2005, are vital because they relate to suspected backhanders worth up to four million euros paid to as yet unnamed Portuguese establishment figures in 2002 via secret transfers from Freeport in the United Kingdom to offshore bank accounts in the Channel Islands.

The demand was made by the Portuguese authorities at a Eurojust meeting in the Hague on Tuesday.

Eurojust, the European Union Judiciary Cooperation Headquarters, is an EU legal body which aims to adjudicate difficult legal cases between member states.

The hearing heard how the Portuguese police investigating the case had been demanding the documents for three years but had “heard nothing”.

At the meeting, British police and legal authorities promised to deal with the request “at the highest level” and send off all the letters and documents relating to the secret bank transfers which would reveal to whom the backhanders were paid.     

Officers at British Intelligence had allegedly obtained the information that could be useful in the ongoing investigation into the legality of planning permission licenses for the shopping outlet at Alcochete, near Lisbon, through phone tapping.

Neither the British Embassy nor Freeport’s head office in the United Kingdom have so far commented over the investigations, which centre on alleged hush-money payments for an illegal project which environmentalists claim was constructed on or dangerously near to a European Union protected estuary wetland for endangered migratory birds on the River Tagus.

No authorisation

Information relevant for the Freeport case had been obtained in the United Kingdom via ‘administrative tapping’ (interception of phone calls, e-mails, faxes and SMS messages among other things) carried out by British Secret Services without the authorisation of a Portuguese or British judge, claims the Lisbon daily Correio da Manhã.

The truth or falseness of the allegation was one of the key questions on the table at Tuesday’s hearing between Portuguese police and magistrates and their British counterparts.

Administrative tapping and eavesdropping in Portugal is prohibited by law unless matters of state security are involved and even then require legal orders.

Among the members of the Portuguese team going to Holland are Cândida Almeida, from the Ministério Público, Pedro Carmo, and Moreira da Silva, both from the PJ police.

The hearing was set up by Eurojust after English investigators uncovered money of dubious origin in United Kingdom offshore bank accounts which were traced back to Freeport.

The aim of the meeting is to formally exchange collected information in order to ascertain whether there had or had not been bribery payments amounting to an estimated four million euros by Freeport to key political and municipal figures to enable the development to proceed smoothly.

The Freeport development was given the green light despite complaints from various environmental groups under the PS government of António Guterres when the current Prime Minister, José Socrates was Secretary of State for the Environment.

In the past two years Freeport, the largest outlet in Europe when opened in June 2004, is said to be close to bankruptcy.

Freeport’s administration has always denied that the retail park could face closure despite persistent rumblings of discontent from retail stores at the site.

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