October 18. 2021. 6:16

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Portugal ‘still to prove itself’ in the fight against corruption

During the Portuguese Presidency there have been several well publicised statements regarding the rule of law in the EU, particularly directed at Eastern European members.

Only last month, Portugal’s minister of foreign affairs reaffirmed the intention to proceed against Poland and Hungary for suspected violations of European values.

But Portugal itself has been continuously criticised by international bodies such as the Council of Europe and Transparency International for lack of progress in addressing key issues.

Many would argue that Portugal still has much to do to get its house in order to reform its judicial system and administrative courts, which is an EU priority for Portugal.

It is said that the scandal surrounding the Banco Espirito Santo (BES), which collapsed in 2014 under a mountain of debt, is a prime example of why Portuguese courts need reform.

This begs the question: Why, then, doesn´t Portugal put its own house in order?

The conference, in May, took place in the Portuguese city of Coimbra.

And, coincidentally, a major study compiled by the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, highlights the many problems the country still faces in this particular sphere.

The study, commissioned by the NGO, Democracy Reporting International (DRI), which works to improve public understanding of the rule of law in the EU, said that public perception of the judiciary in the country is relatively weak.

This is due to several high-profile corruption cases involving national politicians and big business, which have so far not been resolved. In one such case, Portugal’s former prime minister Jose Socrates is charged with money laundering of an estimated €20 million.

The report says that the approach to the high-profile cases in the future will be an important indicator of the current state of the rule of law in the country.

The exhaustive study also say that Portuguese justice still suffers from slow proceedings, a high workload, opacity and bureaucracy.

This is due to: legal complexity; a lack of human resources, appropriate training and facilities (including court buildings and technology); and organisational problems (low levels of efficiency, efficacy, and qualified personnel). The financing of the judiciary suffered from the austerity measures implemented in the context of the euro crisis (Portugal ranked only in the middle range on the 2019 EU Justice Scoreboard and the 2018 CEPEJ reports)

It is argued that the Portuguese judicial system has not been seen as a priority for recent governments, in terms of financial investment in public policy, and it has attracted an average spending of 0.35% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Cases brought against Portugal in the international courts demonstrate some weaknesses in the rule of law, particularly concerning delays in Portuguese justice and limits on freedom of the press.

The country’s judicial system, according to the study, has “still to prove itself” in the fight against corruption and economic crime in general, which will be crucial to restoring public confidence. To achieve that goal, there will need to be investment in more human resources (judges, public prosecutors and judicial clerks, but also in the Judiciary Police and its investigative services); improved IT resources; and simplification and improvements in legislation in important areas such as criminal law.

The report says that the judicial system needs to address several challenges, including efficiency and swiftness of procedures.

Portugal has also attracted criticism from Transparency International and it dropped three places, to 33rd place with 61 points, in TI’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index report.

The Index is a tool that measures corruption in the world by analyzing the levels of corruption in the public sector of 180 countries, scoring them from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very transparent).

With its lowest score ever, Portugal is now “well below the average figures for Western Europe and the European Union, set at 66 points.

Susana Coroado, the president of the TI branch in Portugal, said, “Over the last 10 years little or nothing has been done to combat corruption in Portugal, and the results are an expression of that drift”.

TI has claimed that Portugal lacks a legal system equipped with the legal tools to combat and regulate corruption at all levels of the public and private sectors and although it is common knowledge that corruption exists, there is no will to change the status quo.

Elsewhere, in a report last year, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance that, despite some welcome steps, the Portuguese authorities have only partially implemented its recommendation on ensuring that there are no cases of illegal forced evictions and that anyone at risk of being forcibly evicted from their home is afforded the full range of guarantees.

The recommendation that all Roma children rigorously attend compulsory schooling up to the age of 18 years has also been implemented only partially. ECRI “strongly encourages” the Portuguese authorities to continue their efforts in this direction.

Most recently, Portugal has also been criticised by two of the main groups in the European parliament, this time over Lisbon’s nominee to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which was set up last year to crack down on misuse of EU funds.

The Renew Europe and European People’s Party condemned a “politically motivated” attempt by Lisbon to push through its candidate, surpassing a European advisory panel favouring another Portuguese candidate.

The affair cast a shadow over Antonio Costa’s Socialist government at the start of its six-month stint as president of the Council of the EU, which concludes at the end of this month.

At a recent conference on “the rule of law in Europe”, EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said the Portuguese people had had to “endure the longest dictatorship in Europe in the 20th century.”

The Belgian official said the country “knows that the rule of law has a direct impact on people’s daily lives”.

The key question now, though, is what will Portugal to address the still serious short-comings in the rule of law that still exist on its own doorstep.

The Council of Europe has also been critical of Portugal over several years.

A recent report on Portugal from its Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) evaluates the implementation of the 15 recommendations which GRECO issued to the country in a report adopted in 2015.

Several shortcomings persist, said the CoE. Although the code of conduct for MPs has been adopted and fills many of the gaps in the integrity regime, it has not, for example, properly tackled the scope of permissible contacts between MPs and third parties or established sanctions for improper acts, says the report.

Similarly, although MPs’ declarations of income, assets and interests are now accessible online, the independent Authority for Transparency attached to the Constitutional Court, responsible for their assessment, remains to be set up and regular and substantive checks within a reasonable time of MPs’ declarations are to be foreseen by law.

Furthermore, Portuguese legislation does not provide for adequate sanctions for minor breaches of MPs´ asset reporting obligation, and an evaluation and impact assessment of the effectiveness of the conflicts of interest prevention system for MPs does not appear to have been carried out.

Likewise, the revised Statute of Magistrates, while containing some general principles, “does not amount to a fully-fledged clear and enforceable code of conduct for judges, covering issues such as gifts and conflicts of interest.”

GRECO has requested that the Portuguese authorities report back on the implementation of the pending recommendations by 31 March 2022.

Another CoE report, published last year, is by its Committee for the Prevention of Torture which “once again” urges the Portuguese authorities to take determined action to prevent police ill-treatment and ensure that cases of alleged ill-treatment are investigated effectively. It also proposes a series of measures to improve the treatment of prisoners, notably vulnerable prisoners.