Golden visa trial finally opens

It has taken over two years to get to court, everyone involved says they have done nothing wrong, the lawyers defending them are accomplished ‘hot shots’ and the man holding the can is the country’s ‘superjudge’ overseeing such a packed stable of high-profile cases that many defendants appear in two if not three of them. Looking at the Golden Visa line-up of defendants as the trial limped into action on Monday, promising “audiences to the end of the year” in front of a panel of judges that “will not be working exclusively”, the uneasy question is: are these trials set up to fail?

Back in 2015, the Economist’s Charlemagne blog warned that both the Golden Visa trial and that into the collapse of BES would be “severe tests of Portugal’s slow-moving justice system”.

But no-one at the time considered the fact that the case would be staggered over 40-odd weeks, with hearings simply on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Considering there are 400 witnesses to be heard, 17 people and four businesses in the dock – and ‘phone taps’ in Chinese that appear to have been “less than rigorously translated” – the way ahead promises to be massively fragmented.

On Monday, the lawyer representing key defendant former IRN notary authority boss António Figueiredo claimed that, out of the “mountain” of Public Ministry allegations, the only thing likely to emerge would be “a mouse”.

Figueiredo’s purported sidekick, former SEF borders agency director Manuel Palos also presented the court with the uncomfortable question: “Do you truly think that I would exchange a lifetime of work for two bottles of wine?”

For readers unaware of the background to this case, it centres on allegations that Figueiredo orchestrated a network that basically sold/fast-tracked residency visas to wealthy Chinese, Angolans, Russians, Brazilians, Libyans and South Africans.

Always insisting that he was innocent, Figueiredo was kept in jail for months after the round-up of the so-called guilty parties (in November 2014) that eventually saw Interior Minister Miguel Macedo resign his position, too – saying nonetheless that he was guilty of nothing.

With the kind of ‘media leaks’ that should be impossible in a country that insists on secrecy of justice, we were then drip-fed scenarios of corruption that led to multiple charges.

Figueiredo is charged with corruption, prevarication (failure to carry out his public duties), the trafficking of influences, embezzlement, money-laundering and the receipt of undue advantage; Macedo with the trafficking of influences and prevarication; Palos with corruption and prevarication, and Paulo Lalanda e Castro (one of former prime minister José Sócrates’ old mates implicated in Operation Marquês and ‘blood mafia’ case “O-Negative) with the trafficking of influences.

Lesser-known names make up the rest of the lengthy charge-sheet – with three Chinese and one Angolan businessman being defended by what national tabloid Correio da Manhã calls “one of the country’s top 13 judges”.

While Manuel Palos has been the only defendant prepared to give evidence at this early stage of the trial, Miguel Macedo is believed to be putting forward an impressive number of political heavyweights in his defence.

Last week, reports suggested former PSD defence minister José Pedro Aguiar Branco, former justice minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz and former mayor of Porto Rui Rio were all preparing to put their hands in the fire for Macedo, while this week CM adds that former finance minister Maria Luís Albuquerque will also be appearing as a defence witness.

Without going into the Who’s Who of top-flight lawyers prepared to rebut the Public Ministry’s findings, we have the news published in Wednesday’s papers that a much-simpler case overseen by ‘superjudge’ Carlos Alexandre has bombed spectacularly after two years and months of toings and froings in court.

The Supreme Court has accepted arguments by lawyers defending former PJ inspector Paulo Pereira Cristóvão that Alexandre’s court was ‘not competent’ to have referred him and 17 others for trial in a case that involved police agents aiding and abetting a criminal gang that robbed wealthy householders in the Greater Lisbon area.

It is still uncertain what the Supreme Court’s decision will mean. Some news sources suggest the trial will be declared null and void and have to start again, others are more positive and think Lisbon’s appeals court will find a way of salvaging a path forwards. But what it does show is that superjudge Carlos Alexandre may not be quite as super as he has been cracked out to be.

Indeed, in an extraordinary interview last year with SIC television, he said he didn’t even like the nickname ‘superjudge’ and he wasn’t that sure why he had it bearing in mind that he did not really have the necessary “qualifications” (“I don’t have any books published, I don’t go to conferences, I have no post-graduate degrees,” he said candidly).

Yet he is the ‘figurehead’ of investigations into the collapse of BES; into the financial corruption presented as Operation Monte Branco; into the quagmire of illegalities said to surround José Sócrates (Operation Marquês) and overseeing countless other complex issues – including the José Veiga case centring on business corruption in the Congo, and Operation Fénix, probing the use of unlicensed bully-boy security guards in Porto.

Perhaps this is the reason for the apparent confidence of defence lawyers in ‘Operation Labyrinth’? With a workload like Alexandre’s, a shed-load of needle-sharp lawyers are almost certain to find lapses and mistakes that they will be able to use to their advantage.

Meantime, it has to be remembered that the Golden Visa scheme has brought over €2.5 billion worth of investment into Portugal at a time when it badly needed it.

At last count – after a January in which business tripled in comparison to the month before – over 4,000 golden visas have been awarded, and the demand for them shows no signs of slowing.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: Key defendant former IRN notary authority boss António Figueiredo arriving in court in Lisbon on February 13