The justice systems in many European nations have little to do with justice, serving the interests of those in power. Portugal is no exception.
João Paulo Batalha is a social activist and founding member of Transparency International Portugal
The true test of a country’s judicial independence comes when the courts put a powerful person on trial. That test started in Portugal on January 22, 2018 – with the added, complicated twist that the powerful person charged is the former vice-president of Angola, which means the tensions between politics and law are being felt on an international level.
The central figure in the case in Portugal is Manuel Vicente, the former head of the all-powerful Angolan state oil company Sonangol who was, until a few months ago, the vice-president of Angola. Vicente is accused of corruption and money laundering for allegedly paying Orlando Figueira, a Portuguese prosecutor, over €760,000 in bribes and giving him a cozy job in an Angolan-owned bank in exchange for Figueira dropping investigations into Vicente’s real estate dealings in Portugal.
However, Vicente has not seen the inside of the courtroom – and is not expected to anytime soon. The three-judge panel decided to split the former vice-president’s trial from that of his co-defendants in order to allow an appeal court to sort determine his legal status. The Angolan Government wants the former vice-president’s charges to be sent to Angola for trial there, in Angolan courts, by Angolan judges, under Angolan law. Authorities in Luanda, all the way up to newly elected President João Lourenço, do not miss a chance to voice their displeasure at the Portuguese Public Prosecutor’s refusal to comply with this request. The latest salvo fired in the conflict was a letter sent by the Angolan Government to the embassies of all 8 fellow Portuguese-speaking countries, complaining about Portugal’s disrespect for existing judicial cooperation agreements.
That came immediately after the strange incident of the lightening-detention warrant. Acting on information (which turned out to be false) that Manuel Vicente might make a personal lightning visit to Portugal on the first weekend of February, the Prosecutor’s Office issued a detention warrant – making it clear, though, that Vicente was not to be arrested, but simply to be “detained” just for the brief time necessary to serve him papers detailing the charges brought against him. This was because so far Angolan judicial authorities have refused requests from the Portuguese Prosecutor’s Office to formally notify the former vice-president. Even then, the arrest was only valid in Portugal, and only during the weekend it was issued in. A tactical warrant if there ever was one.
These odd developments highlight the public political pressure that has been put on the Portuguese judiciary – and how cautiously the judiciary goes about their mission in such a toxic environment. Angola’s push to have their ex-vice president and current member of Parliament tried at home doesn’t seem to have any legitimacy under existing cooperation agreements. That’s because the Angolan Prosecutor’s Office has made it clear, answering a request from their Portuguese counterpart, that it would never try Vicente, who is protected by an immunity law as a former vice-president and also falls under an amnesty law that would immediately clear him. This legal interpretation has been adopted by the case judges in Lisbon, and is currently under appeal in Portugal.
Nevertheless, at the last summit in Davos, António Costa, the Portuguese prime-minister – who can’t get an invitation for an official visit to Angola while this case is pending – met with President João Lourenço. Both leaders have reportedly discussed some face-saving way to get Vicente’s charges sent to Angola, where he would be assured impunity. If that discussion in fact took place, Costa crossed a red line by even accepting to address a case making its way through the court system, where the prime-minister is rightfully powerless.
Portugal’s meek acknowledgements of Angolan complaints – Costa recognized the case as an “irritant” in bilateral relations – show clearly that the Portuguese Government, like the Angolan élite, would rather the issue just went away. Portuguese Prosecutor General Joana Marques Vidal has distinguished herself by allowing high-profile corruption cases to be fully investigated and brought to courts, regardless of political pressures. Yet the minister of justice recently announced that Vidal would not be appointed to a second term when her mandate expires in October. Some see this as an indirect attempt to placate the Angolan government who, like many Portuguese politicians, are hostile towards Vidal.
The judiciary, so far, seems undeterred. Recently, responding to a journalist’s enquiry, the Prosecutor’s Office admitted it might reopen the investigations targeting Manuel Vicente that had been shut by Orlando Figueira, the prosecutor now on trial for bribery. Still, the public pressure being put on the judiciary is a strain on the basic principle of separation of powers. It’s disappointing to see Angolan President João Lourenço send such signals, since he took power promising to clean up the hugely high levels of perceived corruption under his predecessor José Eduardo dos Santos. To have the Portuguese prime-minister follow suit is simply shocking. The Manuel Vicente case turned out to be a real test on the integrity of the democratic system in Portugal – and politicians are not helping.
Until now, António Costa has missed every opportunity to make it clear that a capable, independent judiciary is not an “irritant” in bilateral relations but a non-negotiable part of a fully functioning state based on the rule of law. The real obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to improve relations between Angola and Portugal is the corruption and complicity that has allowed Angolan officials to transfer shady money into the Portuguese economy – including at-risk sectors such as the banking system and real estate.
The trial is still ongoing for Orlando Figueira, the prosecutor charged of having been bribed by Manuel Vicente. Vicente’s day in court will only come after the courts settle who has jurisdiction over his case. Both processes are an opportunity to clean away the stain of impunity and bring about a new era of justice and shared prosperity for the people of Portugal and Angola.
What is demanded from politicians is to simply not to interfere in the course of justice.
This article is an updated, adapted version of a feature first published by Transparency International on January 23, 2018