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Portuguese backlash against plan to remove corruption-busting prosecutor

Angolan President Joao Lourenco gives his first press conference after his election on January 8, 2018 to mark his first 100 days in office at the Presidential Palace in Luanda.
Angolan President Joao Lourenco gives his first press conference after his election on January 8, 2018 to mark his first 100 days in office at the Presidential Palace in Luanda. Source: AMPE ROGERIO/AFP/Getty Images.

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Government says it will not renew Joana Marques Vidal’s mandate.

LISBON — The Portuguese government is under fire over plans to oust a prosecutor with a reputation for rooting out corruption among the political and business elite.

“You’ve put into question the autonomy of the Public Prosecution Service,” opposition lawmaker Hugo Soares told the Socialist government during a heated parliamentary debate last week. “We won’t accept this.”

The controversy began when Justice Minister Francisca Van Dunem said the government would not renew Joana Marques Vidal’s six-year mandate when it runs out in October.

“It’s a long mandate and it’s a single mandate,” Van Dunem told TSF radio.

The announcement came a day after Angola’s President João Lourenço renewed his attacks on Portugal’s justice system for pursuing a graft investigation into the African nation’s former Vice President Manuel Vicente.

“We consider this an offense, we do not accept this kind of treatment,” Lourenço told a news conference in Luanda. He demanded accusations against Vicente be heard instead in Angola.

Portugal is anxious to avoid harming relations with Angola, an oil-rich former colony and major trading partner.

The government denies any political interference in the judicial process over the Vicente case, which involves accusations of bribes given to Portuguese magistrates to drop a money laundering probe.

However, the timing of the Marques Vidal announcement has raised doubts.

“It’s certainly difficult to miss the coincidence,” said João Paulo Batalha, president of the Portuguese branch of Transparency International. “Traditionally, Portuguese politicians have been very eager to placate the Angolan government when it’s upset about judicial investigations.”

Vicente is one of a slew of high-profile figures targeted by the justice system since Marques Vidal took over as Portugal’s prosecutor general.

Among those facing charges are former Prime Minister José Sócrates; Ricardo Espírito Santo Salgado, a banking magnate nicknamed “The owner of all this;” telecoms executives Zeinal Bava and Henrique Granadeiro; the head of the immigration service; a former interior minister; and senior detectives.

Batalha says there had been “an historic shift” in the way the Public Prosecution Service tackles high-level corruption since Marques Vidal took over.

The Public Prosecution Service’s readiness to ignore political pressure in pursuit of suspected wrongdoers among the rich and powerful has made Marques Vidal something of a cult hero.

“If there is one thing Joana Marques Vidal has demonstrated over these past years, it’s her immunity to the terrible temptation to please governments,” political commentator João Miguel Tavares wrote last week in the newspaper Publico. “That’s why the Portuguese have become so fond of her.”

In response to the clamor to keep Marques Vidal in post, the government said six-year term limits for the prosecutor general prevent the position from becoming politicized.

Anti-corruption campaigners and legal experts see some legitimacy in that argument, but have blasted the timing of the government’s announcement, saying it undermines Marques Vidal’s authority just as high-profile cases are coming up for trial.

“It’s not a particular scandal if she isn’t given a second term,” Batalha said. “But we need to understand why: Is it to preserve the independence of the office? Or is there the political will to remove not just her, but anybody like her and to appoint a more malleable chief prosecutor?”