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Pedrogao Chief: "A Scapegoat"; I Could Be Next, Say Firefighters

Updated: Jun 3


An honor guard of about 200 commanders and firefighters greeted Commander Augusto Arnaut on his morning arrival at the Leiria courthouse and after the lunch break. In silence, his colleagues saluted him. When the defendant reached the end of the line, he turned around and thanked them. (Photo by Jornal de Noticias)

 

The prosecution’s request for the conviction of the Commander of the Pedrogao Grande Volunteer Firefighters “is giving in to an intolerable pressure from political power to find a culprit”, said his defense attorney, according to Diario Guardiao (May 31).


Filomena Girao, Commander Augusto Arnaut's lawyer, addressed the Tribunal Court of Leiria on May 31 with closing arguments in the trial of possible criminal negligence for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 in the June 17, 2017 fire of Pedrogao Grande, the deadliest fire in Portugal’s history. Arnaut is one of 11 defendants.


“Actually, we, too – I, Commander Arnaut and everyone who sits here, certainly – would have liked the Public Ministry to have fulfilled effectively its role and that guilt would not die once again unmarried, that is, that the real culprits had been tried.


“But in the dock, I don’t see any of those responsible for the decisions that undermined fire prevention and firefighting. I don’t see any of the rulers who, with absolutely disastrous policies, got us here.


“I don’t see any of the decision-makers of the multiple plans for the revitalization of the interior that, until today, have not been implemented.


“I don’t see any of the real culprits responsible for the tragedy of Pedrogao.”


Closing arguments began on May 18 with the prosecution asking for a sentence of more than five years for Commander Arnaut, reported Diario de Noticias (May 18).


Local Officials Could Do Nothing More


On May 26, the defense attorney of Jorge Abreu, the president of Figueiro dos Vinhos, argued that his client’s subjection to the trial was “undeserved hardship”, according to Porto Canal (May 26).


Jorge Abreu was accused and prosecuted for two counts of negligent homicide and one count of grievous bodily harm. He was held responsible for not having proceeded “by himself or through someone else, to cut the trees and vegetation on the land” that bordered it.


The Public Ministry asked for the acquittal of Abreu, considering that “it was not the lack of fuel management that determined the death of these victims” as “the flames did not reach them”.


Defense attorney Ferreira da Silva said that “there was no fire, fire or flames” on Estrada Municipal (EM) 521, where two people died of carbon monoxide poisoning.


Also, on May 26, Castanheira Neves, the defense attorney for Fernando Lopes, the former president of Castanheira de Pera, said, outside the courthouse, that his client and the other former and current local officials could have done “nothing more. . . nothing more,” reported SIC Noticias (May 26).


The Public Ministry asked that Lopes should be given a single sentence for the deaths of four citizens, according to Jornal de Noticias (May 18).


In relation to Valdemar Alves, former mayor of Pedrogao Grande, Jose Graça, at the time a councilor, and Margarida Gonçalves, then responsible for the forestry technical office, the Public Ministry asked for the three defendants to be sentenced to “a single penalty in a measure considered adequate” for six deaths, reported Jornal de Noticias.


(There was a separate trial of alleged irregularities in the rebuilding of houses after the fire. On January 31, Valdemar Alves was sentenced to seven years in prison. Alves appealed the sentence as “inhumane . . . and equivalent to life imprisonment”, recalling the defendant’s age of 73 and his state of health, reported Visao Verde (April 4).)


“He Did Not Act Out of Cowardice”


On May 31, the fire chief’s attorney reckoned that the prosecution did not comply with its duties of legality and objectivity by not asking for her client’s acquittal, according to Diario Guardiao.


“Unfortunately, for Portuguese justice, he did not act out of cowardice or incompetence,” said Attorney Girao.


“Contrary to what the MP (Public Ministry) wanted to believe in its allegations, fire does not follow plans. And it was especially so that day: the fire did not follow plans. It surprised and proceeded wildly. It followed the variations of the wind: sudden, violent, erratic, all of it. The fire was, on that day -- more than on any other -- treacherous.”


She recalled that her client viewed the fire in Regadas as a projection of the Escalos Fundeiros fire and not as an autonomous fire, impossible to predict, even using AROME (a small-scale numerical prediction model, which improves short-range forecasts of severe events).


The defense attorney regretted that the Public Ministry focused on the government-commissioned report by a team led by Professor Domingos Xavier Viegas, coordinator of the Center for Studies on Forest Fires at the University of Coimbra, and ignored the court testimony of those same experts, reported Diario Guardiao.


“As can be seen, artfully, slyly, the MP (Public Ministry) shredded the evidence at its whimsical and unreasonable pleasure, grossly violating the function that the law imposes on it.”


“Damned Diligence”


Filomena Girao said that the fire’s evolution was not due to the actions of Commander Arnaut.


Faced with the “hell” experienced that day, the defense lawyer said that the defendant “did not give in to doubt or fear and did everything the best that he could” when facing “a monster from which most of us would have fled.


“Commander Arnaut did not violate any duty of care and, by his conduct, saw the swiftest and most robust combat that was possible in difficult circumstances.


“Had Commander August Arnaut stayed at home, had he delayed his arrival in the theater of operations, had he suffered from a car breakdown or had he gone for a walk instead of having gone quickly to Escalos Fundeiros, I would not be here today. For sure.


“Damned diligence. Yours, Commander. That was his only fault. That he acted with diligence and zeal.”


The lawyer was referring to the conduct of the national second-in-command, Albino Tavares, who said that he had received orders to go to Pedrogao Grande in preparation for a visit from President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. He said that the trip took four hours during which he did not answer his cell phone, ignoring the fire.


“Instead of the MP’s request for condemnation, Commander Arnaut deserves our thanks. It is enough to look at the images of that day, which we all saw during the trial, for any citizen, consciously and responsibly, to be absolutely sure of that.


“The country has owed him that thanks for five years.”


3 Fire Chiefs from the Azores


In solidarity with Commander Arnaut, about 200 fire commanders and firefighters from around the country attended the court session and formed an honor guard for him, in the morning, before the trial began and, before it resumed, after lunch.


Luis M. Cunha, director of the Humanitarian Association of Volunteer Firefighters of Pedrogao Grande (AHBVPG), who began the initiative to support Arnaut, told Jornal de Noticias (May 31) that the commanders met at 8 a.m. and walked to the Tribunal Court of Leiria in a 2-line formation.


Cunha said that he had confirmed the presence of three brigade commanders from as far away as the islands of the Azores and one from Viana do Castelo. The 25 fire commanders of the district of Leiria, some of whom testified at the trial, also were present.


“We extolled the commanders to be present at the reading of the judgment and to make the symbolic delivery of the keys to the associations, in case Commander Arnaut is convicted,” said Cunha who told Jornal de Noticias that a conviction would mean that the association would have to close its doors because it does not have the money to pay compensation claims, which exceed 1 million euros.


The letter from the Humanitarian Association of Volunteer Firefighters of Pedrogao Grande read in part:


“Portuguese firefighters have just taken yet another ax cut in their desire to help save lives and property of others.”


The letter accuses the Public Ministry of “a total lack of intellectual honesty in the way it asks for the conviction of a man who is willing to give his best for others.”


It asked all fire commanders in the country to show their solidarity with Commander Arnaut in an “orderly and disciplined way” at the courthouse door.


“Today, it’s him but, tomorrow, it could be someone else.”


The Portuguese Fire Brigade (LBP) also expressed its support for the commander of Pedrogao Grande in a statement:


“LBP wonders about the reasons that led to the process against a firefighter commander, with no direct or indirect implication of the command structure that is responsible for fighting forest fires.”


The statement also says that this situation will lead “many other commanders to ask themselves whether it is worth continuing, if nothing changes, specifically, if the National Command is not instituted quickly.


“The State has refrained from defending one of those who always has done his best to defend citizens. It is clear that, despite everything that others may say, in fact, Civil Protection does not and has not worked. So, it was decided to make a firefighter commander the scapegoat.”


After the Public Ministry’s final arguments, Marco Francisco, administrator of the Facebook page, Diario de um Bombeiro, wrote:


“They want to make Commander Arnaut an example of justice in Portugal but, in our view, they chose the wrong person.


“It’s time for Portuguese firefighters to show their displeasure with what is happening. Remember that what is happening to the commander could happen to any of us from the moment we leave the barracks in a vehicle (to go to a fire).


“I know that something has to be done. The people will understand, and the people will be on our side.


“I express my displeasure, my anger, the shame that I feel at this moment, the impotence and the enormous support that Commander Arnaut deserves.”


2 Electricity Firm, 3 Roads Authority Defendants


The Public Ministry asked for the imprisonment of Casimiro Pedro, an employee of the former EDP Distribuçao (Energias de Portugal), currently E-REDES, according to Diario de Noticias (May 18).


As for the other defendant who is an employee of E-REDES, Jose Geria, prosecutor Ana Mexia said that he should be “judged according to the evidence produced.”


In the case of the three employees of the roads authority, Ascendi Pinhal Interior, Jose Reves, Ugo Berardinelli and Jose Mota, the prosecution requested a prison term of more than five years for 34 crimes of negligent homicide and seven of grievous bodily harm for not ensuring the cleaning of the fuel management lanes of the EN 236-1, known as the “road of death,” where 44 lost their lives.


The trial began on May 24, 2021.



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