The end of the cycle of the socialist António Costa, who came to power in 2015 with a vote of no confidence from the left, will have a special underline in the history books as the first ruler of Portugal to resign during his term in office after being splashed by a judicial operation against corruption. After the investigating judge deflated the case presented by the prosecutors to reduce it to possible influence peddling and bribery in the approval of energy projects and a gigantic data center in Sines, the question that runs through the country is whether the current criminal evidence justified the enormous political crisis unleashed. that swept away the prime minister, his government and an absolute majority that had not yet reached the halfway point of the legislature. With a resignation caused by who knows what, according to the mayor of Porto, the independent Rui Moreira. "I haven't been able to understand what the prime minister is accused of," he said by phone.
Sometimes what happens in Lisbon is best explained from Porto. And Moreira, who clashed with the prime minister over the decentralization process, is now dismayed by his resignation and the calling of elections. "On the first day it seemed to me that there was some haste, it didn't seem to me that the indications about the prime minister justified a crisis of this nature. Worse than that was then moving towards the dissolution of Parliament, which can happen when it doesn't work, but I don't see it not working now. The country, which was in a situation of stability, is now entering a situation of profound instability," he deplores. His rejection of the decision taken by President Rebelo de Sousa is shared by Costa, who on Saturday called the election "irresponsible". "Everything advised that there should be common sense in not triggering this political crisis," he said at the headquarters of the Socialist Party (PS).
Criticism of the actions of the Attorney General's Office (Prosecutor's Office), which announced in the last paragraph of a statement that the Supreme Court was investigating the prime minister, has skyrocketed after the decision of Judge Nuno Dias Costa to apply soft precautionary measures and reduce the alleged crimes of the five detainees, including a friend of António Costa. lawyer Diogo Lacerda Machado, and his former chief of staff, Vítor Escária. This, coupled with errors such as confusing the prime minister with his economy minister, António Costa Silva, in the transcript of a wiretap or leaks to the press, are undermining the work of the three prosecutors in the case. "Justice in the public square serves hidden interests and excites the ignorant," Cândida Almeida, former director of the Central Department of Investigation and Criminal Action, the same department that has directed Operation Influencer, said in the Jornal de Notícias.
No one questions the independence of the Attorney General's Office to investigate or equality before the law, but voices are growing concerned about the disproportion between the court case and the political crisis. "The Public Prosecutor's Office has my full solidarity with the investigation, but this should have been done discreetly, informing the President of the Republic. The way all this was made public forced the prime minister to resign. And now the most worrying thing is that, despite the fact that the President of the Republic asked the Prosecutor's Office for speed, it has already said that the process will be slow," laments the president of the Municipal Chamber of Porto, who then asks the million-dollar question. "What will the country think if the prime minister is acquitted?" he asks.
"If, in a few months or years' time, we conclude that in Portugal a stable absolute majority was interrupted and everything was altered for something that does not prosper, that deserves a deep reflection on the judicial system, both internally and by legislators," said former Socialist minister Alexandra Leitão during an interview in Lisbon. Leitão, a lawyer by training and coordinator of the political presentation of Pedro Nuno Santos, one of the aspirants to lead the new stage of the PS, recalls that since 2015 her party saw judicial matters as "a taboo" that she does not share. "It is also up to the legislator to think about justice, as he thinks about all public services. It is not a question of addressing the loss of autonomy of the Public Prosecutor's Office, but of aspects that can be improved, such as the deadlines of the investigation or the protection of the secrecy of justice to prevent people who have been acquitted before having been convicted in the public square."
Searches can be made at the prime minister's residence, of course, but the indications need to be very strong
Alexandra Leitão, former Socialist minister
Alexandra Leitão recalls some examples from the past, such as that of Miguel Macedo, the interior minister in the conservative government of Pedro Passos Coelho who resigned in 2014 after being implicated in a corruption case. Despite being acquitted in court, the impact on his career and reputation was a sentence he had already paid. More serious was what happened in 2003 with the former socialist minister Paulo Pedroso, who spent five months in preventive detention after being accused by the Prosecutor's Office of committing sexual abuse with minors taken in by the public institution Casa Pía, something dismissed by the judge. The Portuguese state had to compensate him with 68,000 euros after he was convicted by the European Court of Human Rights, which considered that the reasons for detaining him "were not relevant or sufficient".
"In a state governed by the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the autonomy of the Public Prosecutor's Office cannot be questioned, which must be able to investigate us all without limits," the former minister defends. But this does not, in his opinion, prevent the judicial system from weighing the impacts of its actions. "Searches can be carried out at the prime minister's residence, of course, but it is necessary that the indications are very strong and that a political crisis of these dimensions is not created with apparently weak indications," he says.
Everything that has happened, according to the mayor of Porto, will fuel "extremism from the left and the right" because Operation Influencer will condition the debate until the elections on March 10. "We are going to a campaign that will focus its attention on this case. People are not going to be evaluating the proposals of the parties, but they will be making a judgment in the public square about what may or may not have happened. And that is a trial of Torquemada and the Inquisition. Democracy cannot be boiled by inquisitions, it is dangerous," he says.
"Democracy cannot be boiled by inquisitions, it is dangerous"
Rui Moreira, Mayor of Porto
António Costa acknowledged a week ago that he was saying goodbye to his aspirations, which everyone took for granted that they were passing through Brussels. "In all likelihood, I will never hold public office again," he said in a speech aimed at both defending his obligation to attract foreign investment and distancing himself from the main people involved in the operation, Vítor Escária and Diogo Lacerda Machado. He apologized for naming the former and said that the latter had not collaborated with the Cabinet for years nor had "any mandate" from him "to do what he has done." Costa even withdrew his "best friend" status, although the relationship between the two had not ceased. In April, they ate together and discussed family, politics and housing needs in Sines to welcome employees of Start Campus, the company at the epicenter of the investigation, Lacerda told the judge.
His speech that day was interpreted by Adão Carvalho, president of the Union of Magistrates of the Public Prosecutor's Office, as a form of pressure. "For the last 20 years, whenever an investigation touches certain people who exercise a certain function, some actors have tried in public in a certain way to discredit the performance of the justice system," he said in an interview with Público and Radio Renascença. In his opinion, Costa should have continued as prime minister. "That is cynicism," said the president of the Assembly, the socialist Augusto Santos Silva, in an interview with RTP, where he considered the precedent created "dangerous". "In the future, a part of the Public Prosecutor's Office can determine the time of political mandates and the issue of the political agenda," he reproached.
The judicial processes that will go down in the history of Portugal tend to move slowly. The paradigm is Operation Marqués, which began in 2014 with the arrest of former Socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates for corruption, tax fraud and money laundering. The Prosecutor's Office would accuse him of 31 crimes, which the investigating judge limited to six. The process has taken so long that some crimes are about to expire. It would be a false closure for a case that shocked public opinion as much as the current one. Sócrates, who spent almost 10 months in pre-trial detention and left the PS in 2018, lashed out at the Prosecutor's Office on Thursday from the Diário de Notícias: "The investigation has existed for four years and no one protested against it. What is at issue are the reasons for arresting, ordering searches and making public suspicions that, although they may be the basis for the decision to investigate, do not justify violence against persons."
The professor of economics and founder of the Left Bloc, Francisco Louça, believes that detaining an arguido (suspect) while waiting to testify before the judge should be limited to cases in which there is a risk of flight. "To have detained José Sócrates for about a year seemed to me an abuse of freedom, the court will say whether he is guilty or not, but there was no reason to assume that there was a flight risk. It was an arbitrary act of public demonstration and this has also happened with mayors who are not from the Socialist Party. There is no partisan reading in this procedural error," the economist said by telephone. In Operation Influencer, the five detainees spent six nights in the cell and finally the judge only observed a flight risk in Escária and Lacerda, whose passports were withdrawn, and he even released the mayor of Sines, Nuno Mascarenhas, without charging him with any crime. "The normalization of detention, which has a strong media effect, an informal condemnation of a person, to listen to his testimony seems to me to be a mistake," says Louça, who is also critical of the leaks of information in proceedings that should remain secret. These days, everything has been disseminated from the content of wiretaps to private issues that have nothing to do with the investigation, such as the possession of hashish for the personal consumption of an arguido.
The normalization of detention, which has a strong media effect, seems to me to be a mistake in order to hear their testimony
Francisco Louça, economist and founder of the Left Bloc
Louça believes that the Attorney General of the Republic, Lucília Gago, should give some explanations and that the Supreme Court should speed up the investigation into the prime minister, although he also believes that he would have had no choice but to resign after the arrest of his chief of staff. "The political effect of this process has been to create a fog over society on the eve of elections of great importance because Portugal has suffered a lot in the last two years," he says, referring to the crises in health, education and housing, added to the political ups and downs caused by 14 resignations of ministers and secretaries of state in less than two years. Paradoxically, Costa's absolute majority became more unstable than his minority governments.
"It is better for prosecutors and judges to act and make mistakes, than to feel blocked by the fear of investigating," former Público director Manuel Carvalho defended in an article. The journalist warned about something else: "From what we know, or from what the investigating judge confirms, there are seeds of moralism in the Public Prosecutor's Office that contaminate its interpretation of the criminal laws." Perhaps the most devastating comment has been made by José Pacheco Pereira, historian and former deputy of the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD): "If what is found in the wiretaps deserved to be imprisoned, then all governors and mayors since the consolidation of democracy would be in jail."
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