Shopkeepers at Freeport claim harassment

RETAILERS at Freeport Designer Outlet in Alcochete say they are being threatened and live in a climate of fear. In what has been described as an atmosphere of ‘fear and repression’ akin to the pre-April 25 Revolution, when the Portuguese secret police PIDE reigned supreme, shopkeepers say they are receiving threatening anonymous phone calls.

The Polícia Judiciária turned up at Freeport last week in search of documentation to support the alleged ‘crimes of corruption’ and backhanders relating to the planning permission process of the development between 1999 and 2002. It was argued that planning permission should never have been granted to Freeport because the area in question fell within a protected wildlife species zone and contravened EU regulations.

In 2001, an Environmental Impact Study to evaluate the area was turned down by the European Commission. In September last year, the designer outlet was visited by the inspector general of the Environment Agency who claimed that Freeport had failed to comply with provisions set out by the Commission. This followed an official complaint by environmental pressure and protection groups, such as Quercus, the Nature Protection League and the Portuguese Society for the Protection of Birds, which had lodged complaints with the European Commission that the proposed site infringed on a protected wildlife bird sanctuary.

Journalists and photographers are now being banned from entering the site to interview shopkeepers or to photograph the premises. Those who have spoken out seem too afraid to have their names published in newspapers or for their faces to appear in front of TV cameras for fear of reprisals.

Now there are concerns that, in this climate of fear, shoppers will be dissuaded from bringing their business to the Retail Park, which opened in September 2004. According to the Correio da Manhã and Metro newspapers, one shopkeeper apparently admitted, “he would be closed down if he dared open his mouth”. The shopkeepers are said to be seeking the services of lawyers to act on their behalf to protect their interests and the investments they have made.

Louise Sutton, director of Freeport, refused to comment to the press, although she is known to have been involved in several meetings with the traders last week.

Freeport represents an investment of 240 million euros and, occupying the equivalent area of 55 football stadia, is the biggest factory outlet in Europe. It contains 240 shops, 40 food outlets and 21 cinema screens, as well as 5,000 parking spaces on a derelict site formerly occupied by the tyre producer Firestone.

At the time planning permission was being sought, the Socialist Party was in power and José Sócrates was Environment Minister, leading to the supposition that the row, one week prior to election day, is politically motivated.