By João Paulo Batalha, Chair, Transparência e Integridade (Transparency International Portugal)
A verdict last week by the Lisbon Court of Appeals in the trial of former Angolan vice president Manuel Vicente has disappointed hopes for a triumph of legal due process over politics and impunity. It also has worrying implications for the independence of Portugal’s judiciary.
When the trial began in January this year, we called it a historic date in the complicated relationship between Angola and Portugal. Four months later, the outcome is disappointingly familiar.
Manuel Vicente, a current Angolan Member of Parliament who served as vice president until late 2017, was accused of paying more than €760,000 in bribes to Portuguese prosecutor Orlando Figueira in exchange for the dismissal of criminal investigations against him for corruption and money-laundering, among other crimes.
Vicente's lawyers and the Angolan government had pushed for the charges against him to be sent to Angola for trial there. However, lower Portuguese courts resisted this, finding in favour of the Portuguese Prosecutor’s Office who argued that it was unlikely Vicente would ever face trial if the charges were sent to Angola.
The Court of Appeal has now over-turned these earlier decisions, and it seems inevitable that Vicente will be protected in his home country by various immunity laws, not to mention an amnesty law introduced in 2016 that will immediately clear him. The Angolan Prosecutor’s Office has even indicated that it would not follow up on the case.
The Portuguese Court of Appeals sent the trial to Angola under judicial cooperation agreements between the two countries. These allow for a person to be tried in their own country for crimes committed in another jurisdiction, as long as there are sufficient guarantees of the sound application of justice. Given that Manuel Vicente is unlikely to ever face prosecution for the criminal charges against him, speculation is rife that this was in fact a political decision. It also seems likely that the outcome of this case will have a bearing on other ongoing investigations against Angolan nationals suspected of money laundering and other offences in Portugal.
Responding to pressure from Angolan president João Lourenço before the outcome of the case, the president and prime minister of Portugal had publicly recognized the difficulties the case was posing to political and diplomatic relations between the countries. Both Portuguese politicians expressed their wish for a swift and satisfactory conclusion. Both welcomed the Court of Appeal’s decision.
The likely prospect of a high-ranking public official such as Vicente escaping with impunity raises questions about the separation of political and judicial powers in Portugal.
This is particularly worrying just now, because the current Prosecutor General’s term expires in October this year and the president and prime minister are the only two people who need to approve the next appointment.
Prime Minister António Costa and President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa must make firm public commitments not to politicize the appointment of the next Prosecutor General, and commit to an open public consultation on either the reappointment of Joana Marques Vidal, the current chief prosecutor, or the appointment of her successor.
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