PJ police have come under fire for revealing so much about Portugal’s home-grown terrorist bid (click here).
Since he was arrested on Thursday morning, 18-year-old IT engineering student João R has been discussed almost constantly on news channels, leading anyone with any grasp of the law to realise he has essentially already been tried via the media.
He may be referred to every now and then as ‘the suspect’ but there has been endless commentary on what he was planning; the armory found at his student digs in Olivais; his ‘oddness’ generally due to being on the spectrum. It will be nigh impossible for this young man to have a ‘fair trial’.
All of which has led to one voice with some authority – Cândida Almeida, the former director of DCIAP (the department of criminal investigation and penal action) – to stress that “it is not normal nor advisable” to publicise foiled attacks like this.
Television media clips have explained how “colleagues on the course” at the science faculty of Lisbon University that João R frequented “are frightened” – without any of them acknowledging there would be no reason for this fright had the story not been quite so heavily publicised.
For two days, there has been widespread coverage of this apparent “plan for a massacre”. It would apparently have lasted “five minutes” – and, according to Correio da Manhã, the young man now in preventive custody in the psychiatric wing of Caxias prison hospital would then have ‘fled’ the carnage… by taking a bus.
Even Eduardo Dâmaso, the paper’s deputy director general, writes that “up until now we have never seen the preparation of an attack within a university with this degree of premeditation”.
Dâmaso went so far as to compare João R’s foiled plan to an atrocity carried out by Daesh.
A niche of apparent sanity was found in conversation with the young man’s grandfather 89-year-old Fernando Carreira.
His grandson “doesn’t even know how to pick up a weapon, or a shovel or a handsaw”, said Mr Carreira.
“The PJ has been here and found nothing”, he added. “They went through everything and found nothing. I believe another team in Lisbon found weapons, gas bottles… practically an entire power plant!”
The elderly man described his grandson as a “boy who was scared of two or three flies”.
Yet the reporting continues even today, with television journalists interviewing an elderly resident of the apartment in which the young man lived, full of the ‘horror of it all’.
Maria da Conceição told reporters that police had visited the building five times, questioning her on every occasion, before they arrested João R.
Cândida Almeida states the obvious: this kind of treatment of a case that has yet to be thoroughly investigated “foments fear in society and could lead to others trying similar acts”.
In João R’s case we are told the 18-year-old planned to use “gas and fuel” for homemade incendiary devices which he would let off as colleagues were in exams.
The explosions would cause everyone to leave the exam rooms and “run into corridors” where he would be waiting with “a knife of 20 cms” and a crossbow.
As Cândida Almeida has remarked: “Many acts are avoided by police throughout the world – even by our own police – and there is not this publicity around cases, because it is a situation that could create panic and terror. This of course is the wish of terrorists, to provoke terror – if we come to the conclusion that this is a terrorist act. Whatever it was, it is not in any way normal to relate something that did not happen, particularly with this dimension…”
Ms Almeida does not however appear to have many ‘supporters’. Retired prosecutor Maria José Morgado has said the revelations serve to “replace social peace and the truth of the facts”.
The ‘truth of the facts’ however has been changing in front of our eyes as the story progresses.
Initially, this was presented as an obsession revealed over the ‘dark web’ and picked up by diligent agents working for the FBI who immediately contacted counterparts at the PJ because the ‘attack’ was so imminent (it was scheduled, we are told, for shortly after 1.20pm last Friday, the day after João R’s arrest).
On Saturday night however, it became clear that there was no ‘dark web’ involved, nor any kind of FBI tail on it.
João R, with the handle ‘PsychotycNerd’, was simply talking on a gaming channel (which is now used by people at home ‘teleworking’) to a fellow gamer. During their chat, he revealed his nefarious plan.
The gamer, going by the name of ‘Sammy’, emailed the FBI out of genuine concern, and the FBI in turn contacted the PJ.
In other words, the connotation that this was a hideous plot hatched within the bowels of rarified cyberspace has already fallen apart.
Meanwhile a source for the PJ has explained that the force felt obliged to emit the statement it sent out on Thursday because the story was leaked to CNN Portugal.