In Portugal

SOG heads to Iraq

This week is the official departure date for Portugal’s elite Special Operations Group, which has been despatched to protect the country’s diplomatic delegation in Baghdad. However, it has emerged that two soldiers from the group have already spent time in Iraq in order to familiarise themselves with the potentially hostile environment.

A total of 12 soldiers from the Special Operations Group are being charged with protecting the Portuguese diplomats, in a high security mission that will involve the close monitoring of every step taken by the chief diplomat. So, in order to ensure that the operation runs smoothly, when the orders for the assignment arrived, the Commander of the Special Operations Group apparently despatched two men to Baghdad on a reconnoitre mission to check out a suitable location for the Portuguese delegation. According to a source, the diplomats will reside, “in a residential area of Baghdad”.

The SOG men will be kitted out in bullet-proof uniforms, drive armour-plated vehicles and will carry highly specialised portable bullet-proof material, which can be placed near windows or other sensitive strategic points for protection.

BT detains drivers

Officers from the GNR’s BT division fined more than 23,000 drivers from Faro, Beja, Évora and Portalegre last November. In total, the police patrols arrested 252 people, of whom 91 were held for driving under the influence of alcohol, 74 for driving without legal documents and three for possession of drugs. According to information supplied by the BT, the majority of drivers were charged after breaking the Highway Code (2,276 incidents). During the same period there were 1,017 accidents, the majority being collisions (762) and six people died. A total of 28 people sustained serious injuries and 237 people suffered minor injuries. During November, police also seized more than 300,000 doses of hashish, three doses of heroin and two doses of cocaine.

Will warrant work?

The European Union’s controversial arrest warrant finally came into force at the beginning of the year, allowing member states to secure the extradition of suspected terrorists or criminals far more easily than before and making it harder to resist a request to hand over a national to another EU state. Portugal, Britain, Ireland, Spain and Denmark are among the 15 current EU member states prepared to implement the law immediately, though most others, and the 10 incoming members, say they will be ready by May.

The idea is that the EU-wide warrant will replace the time-consuming bilateral extradition procedures which, in the past, have enabled terror suspects to launch long appeals before being handed over. Now, an EU state will have to decide within 90 days whether to comply with an extradition request from a fellow member. EU countries will no longer be able to refuse to surrender their own nationals, since the warrant is based on the principle that EU citizens are responsible for their acts before EU courts.

The new system also does away with the practice of giving a minister the final say on whether a suspect should be extradited. Despite the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights, which is binding for all EU members, will, in theory, guarantee the right to a fair trial, not everyone is convinced that the new system will be just. Civil liberty groups claim that problems over the differing terms and conditions of remand and bail across the EU remain unresolved.

“The problem is that all these repressive measures were rushed through and the protection work is not yet ready,” claims Stephen Jakobi from Fair Trials Abroad. “There will be an enormous increase in the number of foreigners sitting in prison awaiting trial under conditions in which locals would be freed. Some needs, such as adequate interpretation and translation, will take years to arrange, but the most urgent is for a European-wide bail/provisional liberty system.”

A European Commission spokesman, however, insisted that the EC is satisfied with the arrangements and commented that judges in one country, who were worried about extradition to another, could ask for supplementary guarantees to satisfy their concerns.

Olympic bid gathers steam

A possible Portuguese bid to hold the Olympic Games in 2016 moved one step nearer after it was announced that Secretary of State for Sport, Hermínio Loureiro, would meet the president of the Portuguese Olympic Committee, Vicente Moura, to discuss an eventual candidature.

Moura believes that, at present, there is only one stadium capable of staging Olympic events: “The National Stadium would be the best hypothesis. It is the only arena that has the right conditions to be modernised. None of the other stadiums in Lisbon have the right facilities, since any arena holding the Olympic Games would need seating capacity for up to 80,000 spectators,” he commented. Nevertheless, he conceded that it would take a lot of work to renovate the stadium and ensure it was suitable to hold the event, including the construction of a new athletics track, as well as swimming pools, an Olympic village and a shooting arena.

The Belgian president of the International Olympic committee, Jacques Rogge, has said in a recent interview that he would be delighted with the prospect of a Portuguese application. In addition, the Portuguese Olympic Committee has already compiled a dossier of theoretical projects, estimated to cost between 1.5 and 2 million euros, to make their bid more alluring.

“It is a subject that will have to be studied in detail. A candidature would be very good for Portugal, for our image abroad, our internal development and national self-esteem,” added Moura.“But for this to happen, we need everyone on board, including the government, local authorities, the President and, above all, the Portuguese people.” Although Moura explained that the bid would be centred on Lisbon, he makes clear he would like to ‘extend the test’ to the whole country.

News of a potential Portuguese application has received a mixed reaction from the country’s sportsmen. Swimmer José Couto said he thought a Portuguese application for 2016 would be precipitous:“2016 isn’t so very far away.I took part in two Olympic Games and I don’t know if we have the right conditions to organise it. Although we have shown that, when we really want to do something, we can, this is an altogether more complicated enterprise.” Athlete Fernanda Ribeiro was also dubious about a Portuguese Olympic bid: “I would very much like to see the Games staged in Portugal, but I have already participated in four and I find this very difficult to countenance. We do not have the money to host such a multi-faceted event. Moreover, I really don’t see how we can build the appropriate infrastructure, namely a stadium, with the capacity for 80,000 people.”

Fares on display

By the end of March, all taxis in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Setúbal will have to possess, by law, a luminous meter that will allow potential passengers to see the amount being charged for each journey from the outside of the vehicle. According to João Chaves, the director of the national taxi association, ANTRAL, only a third of the taxi drivers in Lisbon currently have the equipment. “Only 800 out of 3,000 taxis have installed the appliance, which allows others to see what tariff the passenger is being charged,” Chaves explained. “We have had too many passengers complaining to us that taxi drivers are charging different tariffs for different customers,” he said.

Limp Bizkit rock Lisbon

Fred Durst (right) and his nu-metal band, Limp Bizkit, are set to make their second appearance in Portugal, rocking the Pavilhão Atlântico in Lisbon on February 27. The last time the band performed in Lisbon was in 2001. Now, they are back to promote their new album, Results May Vary, which was released last September.

Helicopter bonus

The president of the National Bombeiro Service and Civil Protection Authority (SNBPC), Paiva Monteiro, recently announced in parliament that the two services will have another three extra helicopters to help them fight forest fires next year. These three helicopters will be added to the 36 aeroplanes and helicopters the government has already ordered. Monteiro also revealed that a large number of bombeiros are currently taking supplementary first-aid and fire-fighting courses to prepare for any potential fires this summer.

Pardon for abortion nurse

President Jorge Sampaio has granted a Christmas pardon to a nurse serving an eight-and-a-half-year jail term for performing illegal abortions. Maria do Céu Ribeiro has been in jail since February 2000, when she was first remanded in custody for violating the country’s tough abortion laws, which only permit the procedure in cases of rape or health risk. She was sentenced in January 2003.

The pardon was one of 38 granted by President Jorge Sampaio in a traditional seasonal practice, and it means the nurse will be released in February. In a telephone interview with RTP television, Maria do Céu Ribeiro explained: “I am extremely happy. My days in jail have been marked by an indescribable pain.”

Ribeiro was one of 42 women put on trial last year in Maia, in the north of the country, for either having abortions or running an abortion network, but was the only one to be handed a jail term. The court dropped the charges against the other accused, or commuted their prison sentences to fines. In addition to convicting Ribeiro for performing abortions, the court also found her guilty of forging documents, fraud and stealing drugs from the hospital she worked for in order to perform the procedures in her home. Ribeiro has always denied the charges.

The mass abortion trial, and Ribeiro’s subsequent conviction, inspired protests both at home and abroad over Portugal’s abortions laws. The protests restarted in December last year after public prosecutors in Aveiro tried seven women accused of having abortions, as well as the doctor who is alleged to have performed them. In a further move, public prosecutors charged nine other people as accomplices to the illegal medical procedures, including the parents of one young woman who accompanied their daughter on the day of her abortion.

Campaigners for abortion reform argue that the laws are outdated, but in a 1998 referendum, voters rejected a proposed new law that would have allowed abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Now a number of women’s groups have launched a petition demanding a new referendum on the issue, a move backed by President Sampaio.

But Prime Minister Durão Barroso apparently remains unconvinced and has said that no new consultation on the issue will take place during the government’s current term, which runs until 2006. Referring to his party’s campaign promise to leave abortion laws unchanged, he commented: “These deputies were not elected to change this law.”

Ukrainian strikes

A Ukrainian prisoner in Braga, George Petko, has started a hunger strike after his home country asked the authorities to allow him to be extradited. The Ukrainian police service alleges the criminal is guilty of defrauding a public company in the Ukraine. However, Petko, who has lived in Portugal for a number of years with his 13-year-old daughter and wife, claims that the government wants to extradite him because he was a union leader who denounced several politicians who were allegedly linked with corruption.

UFO panic

The sight of a strange luminous object hurtling across the sky in broad daylight, caused people across Portugal to panic recently. Thinking they were witnessing an aeroplane accident, several teams of bombeiros across the country began searching for the wreckage of an aircraft, until the Civil Protection Authority informed them that the strange sight was caused by a meteor falling to earth. The meteor was clearly visible across the Iberian Peninsula and witnesses in Spain even felt the force of the explosion as the meteor broke up, describing the experience as similar to an earthquake.

“I saw a ball of fire, with a sort of tail behind it,” explained one witness from Viana do Castelo, “it looked like it was something on fire.” Another witness described the sight as reminiscent of “a shooting star, only much bigger and brighter.” The phenomenon was also seen in Ponte de Sor, Viseu and Castro d’Aire. In Viana do Castelo, the emergency services received dozens of calls from worried residents.

Scientists claim that the meteors often enter the earth’s atmosphere at this time of year, as the earth’s orbit passes through an area where meteor showers are commonplace. According to the sub director of the Astronomy Observatory in Lisbon, Rui Agostinho, the recent sighting was caused by “a relatively large object” entering the earth’s atmosphere and then breaking up into several fragments. Agostinho explained: “As the meteor was seen blazing across the sky for several seconds, and a shock wave was felt post-explosion, the object could have had a mass of several tonnes.”

Better times ahead

Bank of Portugal Governor Vitor Constâncio has delivered mixed signals about the state of the Portuguese economy, warning that, although the recovery is underway, the upturn is more fragile than had been hoped. In a message accompanying December’s monthly economic bulletin, the Governor warned: “We will all have to work more, reform more and innovate more. Our potential for increased growth depends on our collective performance.”

The Bank of Portugal has revised downwards its growth forecast for this year to 0.75 per cent and has conceded that the Portuguese economy is still not expected to perform as well as the European average over the next four years. Average GDP within the Euro-zone is expected to reach between 1.1 per cent and 2.1 per cent this year, and between 1.9 per cent and 2.9 per cent in 2005, the year in which the Central Bank expects a growth in Portuguese GDP of between 0.75 per cent and 2.75 per cent.

Constâncio explained the revised figures by acknowledging that last year’s recession was worse than anticipated and that external demand for Portuguese goods also fell short of expectations. But, in spite of its caveat about economic recovery, the Bank of Portugal made clear there were grounds for optimism: “The disposable income of families should grow in real terms over the next two years. And, after a drop of 0.7 per cent in 2003, private consumption will grow by 1.5 per cent in real terms next year. There will also be a growth in consumer confidence,” the report said.