Portugal condemned for heartless sloppiness

European Court awards distraught father €26,000 over daughter’s disappearance 16 years ago

The Portuguese State has been condemned to pay a distraught father €26,000 plus costs of €17,000 for the agony he has been put through since his 18-year-old daughter Rita disappeared, without trace, in 2006.

There is no suggestion that the State is in any way responsible for Rita’s disappearance. She suffered from schizophrenia, was on medication; she was a vulnerable young woman.

But when her anxious parents realised she had not taken part in the school trip planned that day – for which she had last been seen near the bus station in Matosinhos – authorities essentially dragged their heels. 

According to the court, the “investigation was neither exhaustive, nor thorough”. It was not performed in “a timely manner” – which meant that “evidence that would have made it possible to understand the circumstances of Rita’s disappearance” was compromised.

That evidence appears to have been the signal still emanating from Rita’s phone the day after her family reported her missing.

According to the ruling, the family alerted authorities to Rita’s disappearance on the day it happened (February 17, 2006), at 11.41. 

They tried calling their daughter and leaving text messages on her phone, but received no replies. 

The next day, the father alerted police to the fact that the telephone battery was still working. 

He asked for them to localise where the signal was coming from “as fast as possible, but the Judicial police of Porto said they needed authorisation from a judge, and that at that time (2.30pm) on a Saturday, the court was closed

At 4pm on the same day, Rita’s mobile phone stopped responding”.

And that was it. For three years, the family was left quite literally hanging.

In 2009, to make matters worse, authorities archived the ‘criminal process’.

But the father refused to take the this lying down. He opened an administrative process against the State, for the fact that no-one had shown the slightest ounce of humanity/ professionalism.

More years went by, and then, in 2016, a final Portuguese court absolved authorities of any wrongdoing.

Many people who have ‘taken on the Justice system in Portugal’ say the whole idea is either to wear people down, or wait for them to die. Who knows what the reasons were in this case.

But the father refused to give up. He took the case to the European Court of Human Rights which found, not surprisingly – albeit after eight years – that a great deal more could have been done to find out what happened to Rita Slof Monteiro, an 18-year-old whose parents loved her; whose parents never got to say goodbye, and still to this day have no idea what happened to her.

“It is a very significant result because it recognises that it is not enough for the State to carry out a reconstruction of the investigation late (which it did three years after Rita’s disappearance, when the father lodged his administrative process)”, the lawyer for the family Pedro Alinho told reporters.

“An investigation into the disappearance of people suffering mental problems must be swift and effective. The State paid no attention to the health condition of the missing person. She needed special protection”.

The European Court explained that on February 24 – seven days after Rita went missing – and on February 25, the PJ “received cell phone location data” but the force “did not initiate any follow-up investigation. In fact it is clear from the file that the PJ did not really try to understand the details or explore them more seriously until May 2009…”

“The court notes that only four years after Rita’s disappearance, following clarification that an agent of the phone operator had presented the PJ with details, “it was possible to understand that the cell phone had activated an antenna for the last time in Paiço (miles from Matosinhos), and that it had not moved after that…”

Only at this point, “concrete measures” moved forwards: “namely to determine the conditions at sea” near Paiço and to verify if there was a well in the area in which the young woman may have fallen.

The court also stressed that nothing had been done by way of searching Rita’s computer, or even her room, until 2009…

This is such a tragic story, one can barely imagine the anguish of the parents. Rita’s father admitted to RTP back in 2009 that he had even searched for his daughter in brothels; hired a private investigator. Nothing ever resulted in any leads.

It goes without saying that Rita’s cellphone and bank account have shown no signs of being accessed since February 17, 2006, the day she was last seen, in Matosinhos near the bus station for what should have been a perfectly normal school trip.

natasha.donn@algarveresident.com