In a week where a valiant group of Algarve expats has delivered a 126-page document to the Attorney General’s office to challenge “numerous illegalities” in deals the government insists on forging with the oil lobby; a week in which Portuguese families battle for the umpteenth time against government-backed bulldozers in a process allegedly powered by private interests, and a week that signals 12 months since the brutal killing of a Portimão teenager, anyone with even a passing interest in regional affairs will agree it is business as usual for Portugal’s “judicial machine”. The five-year ‘battle’ to abolish tolls which the European Commission ruled illegal over four years ago is proof enough that justice has not been designed for the common man in Portugal, but rather to maintain the status quo of those who hold the balance of power.
In fact, a book saying this – along with quite a lot more – over a thousand pages was released on Tuesday, entitled ‘40 Years of the Politics of Justice in Portugal’.
Co-writer Pedro Magalhães shines a spotlight on the country’s court system, saying that it is not just “the problem of speed (read here: the complete absence of it) that affects confidence in the courts. It is also that the courts cannot resolve the inequality between those who have the most, and those who have the least… There is also the idea that the courts are not independent”.
On the national panorama, this week also saw news that Duarte Lima, a convicted fraudster, former PSD minister and man wanted for murder in Brazil, may be let off the hook for millions of euros in debt, while a working woman in Maia is at risk of having her bank account frozen over 14 cêntimos that she apparently owes the tax department. Lima, however tarnished, falls into the bracket of those who have the most, while 39-year-old Isabel Gomes comes from that much larger sphere of those who have the least.
Rodrigo Lapa case: “This delay in getting justice would never have happened if I had been a rich man,” says father
Also among ‘those who have the least’ is Sérgio Lapa: the tragic face we saw dealing with unimaginable pain last year as the battered body of his missing son was discovered yards from the home the 15-year-old shared with his mother and Brazilian stepfather in Portimão’s Malheiro area.
Sérgio gave numerous television interviews in the proceeding months when national media railed against the iniquities of the case: it appeared very clear who killed Rodrigo. It appeared very clear that the boy’s mother knew what happened but failed to stand up for her son. Yet, 12 months on justice remains blindfolded and shackled – like a kidnap victim that people are slowly forgetting.
Meantime, Sérgio Lapa has tried variously to pick himself up from the depths of depression, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.
He told daytime chat show hostess Júlia Pinheiro months ago that if he had been a rich man, or even a famous one, he is sure justice would have been done by now.
But as the Lapa family hail from ‘those who have the least’, the man believed to be responsible for Rodrigo’s horrible death remains living freely in Brazil.
Portimão’s PJ police want to speak to him, but their letter rogatory “remains with Brazilian authorities” which also have a justice system that seems to favour those that have most.
“It’s complicated,” a PJ source told us, explaining the lack of extradition agreement between two countries otherwise joined by the same language and mutual history.
“To be honest, I cannot say if we will ever be successful.”
Luck has it that Sérgio Lapa has a special weapon in the form of campaigning lawyer Pedro Proença, a Lisbon-based litigator who regularly appears on national television, championing those with no hope of winning issues if left to their own devices.
“Judges, politicians, even lawyers see me as a menace,” he admitted on Tuesday evening when we discovered he was preparing to take Sérgio Lapa with him to the office of the Attorney General on Wednesday, in the hope of “finally getting things moving”.
“I am doing all I can to bring some light into this awful case,” Proença explained, agreeing that had Sérgio been a man of influence and means, Rodrigo’s death would almost certainly by now have seen justice.
“Fighting for justice is quite exhausting, and risky too,” the Portuguese-Irish lawyer added, promising to let us know how the visit to the PGR (Procuradoria Geral da República) goes.
Readers who have been following stories of Portuguese emigrés who have ‘lost’ children to British social services will recall that Proença is also fighting their corner too – having already succeeded in the return of two children illegally removed from desperate and devastated mothers.
But there are limits to what one man can achieve on his own – and in Portugal, the list of cases screaming for justice would keep a busy legal practice working 24/7 for years, particularly as the so-called ‘celerity’ of justice here is at the bottom of the European scale, next to Slovenia.
And then, of course, there are the cases where blatant illegalities are nodded through, simply because no one has the wherewithal to challenge them.
This is what anti-oil activists believe to be the thought-process behind oil and gas exploration contracts signed with the last government, and upheld by this one.
“They’re riddled with inconsistencies,” campaigner Laurinda Seabra told us. “Illicit addenda, fiscal fraud, ruinous management of surface rental income … you name it, it’s all there in black and white, and they really think we are just going to roll over and accept it…”
As our story on page 15 explains, a civic group in the Algarve is calling a halt on injustice, just as Sérgio Lapa – a man from ‘those who have the least’ – refuses to accept that his son’s terrible death can go unpunished.
A year without justice it may have been, but with luck – and a few mavericks unafraid to be menaces – things could be about to change.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]