Europe

Relief follows Portugal abuse trial

Carlos Cruz speaking at a press conference, following his guilty verdict
Image caption Former TV presenter Carlos Cruz said he was found guilty because of 'prejudice'.

"Condemned" is the most commonly used word on the front pages of Portugal's newspapers today, after the country's longest ever criminal trial ended with a damning verdict.

Six men were given jail sentences of between six and 18 years for sexually abusing children.

But the media coverage of Friday's verdict also made much of the fact that all six men remain at liberty, and will do so until the appeals process is concluded.

In the trial, which began in late 2004, seven people faced charges relating to an alleged sex ring exploiting children from the Casa Pia, a state-run network of homes and schools.

The accused include the former television presenter Carlos Cruz, the former ambassador Jorge Ritto, and a former director of the Casa Pia.

'Ring-leader'

But it was Carlos Silvino, a former driver at the institution, who faced by far the most charges - relating to the abuse of children or procuring them for others to abuse. Prosecutors contend he was the hub of the alleged ring.

Image caption Former school driver Carlos Silvino is alleged to have co-ordinated the child abuse ring

The other male defendants each faced between six and 48 abuse charges; one was also accused of pimping.

One woman, Gertrude Nunes, faced 35 charges for having allowed her house in Elvas, near the Spanish border, to be used for abuse. The court found that she was aware of what was going on, but cleared her of all charges of profiting from the activity.

The initial stages of the trial, and of the lengthy investigation that preceded it, had gripped Portugal. But the subsequent slow progress due to the sheer number of witnesses to be heard, more than 800, helped to foster cynicism about the judicial system.

So too did the dropping of abuse charges against a Socialist deputy and former government minister.

Miguel Matias, lawyer for the Casa Pia and for 31 of the 32 victims whose testimony had triggered the investigation, expressed his and their satisfaction that the court had found that "it was the accused who lied".

Six of the victims were in court for the verdict, before which they had to hear the judges read out graphic descriptions of the incidents of abuse that prompted the charges.

"It gives us some comfort, after so many years of them calling us liars," said Bernardo Teixeira, the only one of the victims who has made himself available for face-to-face interviews from the start.

Image caption Bernardo Teixeira is one of the few victims willing to speak in public

"But it's difficult to look at the accused and their lawyers when they're looking at us."

The panel of three judges, presided over by Ana Peres, stressed in its ruling that the accused acted in the awareness that they were endangering the physical and psychological development of the victims, whose age meant they could not make decisions "freely and consciously".

The judges also rejected the argument, put forward by the defence team of Carlos Cruz in particular, that the young men had been manipulated by prosecutors and had coordinated their stories to incriminate the accused.

The court also ruled that the six must pay compensation to each of their victims of between 15,000 euros and 25,000 euros per person.

Despite the large numbers of journalists, Portuguese and foreign, inside and outside the courthouse on Friday, there was a notable absence of the crowds there had been at previous key moments of the trial.

'Contradictions'

Later, at a well-attended news conference across town, Carlos Cruz said he had been found guilty without evidence, because of "prejudice".

He has created a website on the case that features videos he says were central to the prosecution's case against him.

The films show two of the victims being interviewed by Judge Peres. On his website, Mr Cruz highlights what he describes as contradictions in their testimony.

Image caption Dr Joao Ferreira Diniz is seeking to have his conviction struck down

He has also compared the trial to the summary courts under the authoritarian dictatorship that ended in 1974.

His claim was described as "an exaggeration" by the head of Portugal's Order of Lawyers, Antonio Marinho Pinto, given that defendants have every right and opportunity to appeal against court decisions.

The lawyers' leader is, though, among those who warn that the sluggish pace of court proceedings in Portugal could lead to the statute of limitations being applied in this case if there is a series of appeals.

"The trial alone took six years [but] normally the appeal phase takes much more," he said.

Another of the accused, medical doctor Joao Ferreira Diniz, said he would seek to have the court decision struck down on the grounds that the judges did not provide sufficient grounds for it.

At the start of the hearing, Judge Peres told those present that the judges did not intend to read out the full ruling, which comprises six volumes totalling thousands of pages.

She said lawyers for the prosecution, the defence and the victims would receive the document in digital format by Wednesday.

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