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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Pedrogao Housing Trial: “Giant With Feet of Clay”

"People in shock, traumatized, lost and confused”


“A giant with feet of clay”, a defense attorney called the trial of alleged irregularities in the reconstruction of the houses in Pedrogao Grande after the June 17, 2017 fires.

“As the indictment in the present case, gigantic due to the number of defendants, the crimes charged, the amounts in question, the alleged plans and collusion, everything that was revealed before this court is fragile, weak, inconsistent or unproven,” said the lawyer, Luisa Calhaz, who represents three of the 28 defendants, according to Agroportal (November 25).

There exists “an absolute lack of legal basis to convict these people for the crimes of qualified fraud and document forgery,” the attorney said in closing defense arguments at the Judicial Court of Leiria on November 25.

In closing arguments on November 11, the prosecution had contended that only permanent homes were eligible for rebuilding through the Revita fund. However, Luisa Calhaz contended that “non-permanent houses were not excluded from the reconstruction under that fund”.

The June 2017 fire destroyed 500 houses, including 261 permanent homes, wrecked 50 businesses, killed 66 and injured 253.

It is the deadliest fire in Portugal’s history. Three days of national mourning were declared beginning on June 18.

(A separate Pedrogao Grande fire ongoing trial began on May 24 with 11 defendants to determine the responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44.)

“You cannot leave this courtroom without exercising empathy with all the people who lived and continue to live” the tragedy of Pedrogao Grande, said Calhaz, who challenged those present to put themselves in the place of the people and those who had “the responsibility to make decisions to reduce the damage and recover, in all respects, the land and the people”.

Citing the words of witnesses, the defense attorney reiterated “the scarcity of technical means, the unpreparedness of the municipalities to face what no one expected” and described “people in shock, traumatized, lost and confused”, reported Agroportal. In “this scenario of war”, Revita appears as a fund to support the population and revitalize the areas ravaged by the June 2017 fire.

“More than a dozen members were called to act and decide on the reconstruction of the houses, occupying roles in Revita. . . . GORR (Operational Office for Recovery and Reconstruction) is created in the Pedrogao Grande municipality,” she said.

Calhaz stressed that this process was reached with two of the accused, former president Valdemar Alves and ex-council member Bruno Gomes.

Alves and Gomes face 20 counts of dereliction of political office, 20 counts of document forgery and 20 counts of fraud.

The attorney also quoted Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, the Navy officer who commanded a detachment that was deployed to Pedrogao Grande after the fire:

“It is very easy to judge a year later,” said Gouveia e Melo, who was decorated for his former role as leader of the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. “Much less will it, certainly, be easy to judge four years later.”

Defense attorney Jose Luis Martins, who represents five defendants, said, in turn, that the evidence brought to trial was “none”.

Attorney Abel Fernandes, who represents three defendants, questioned the absence as defendants of “all those who managed millions” of the Revita fund:

“Where are all those who managed millions and millions of euros? No one seems to have been held responsible for the less correct, less objective and even less transparent way in which these funds ended up being used.”

Abel Fernandes maintained that his clients were convinced that their actions were “perfectly lawful, legal and legitimate and, never at any time, even to newspapers and television paragons, even questioned” that their reconstruction efforts” could suffer from some illegality.”

The state requested imprisonment for the two former officials, Valdemar Alves and Bruno Gomes, and suspended sentences for the 26 other defendants.

The trial began on October 26, 2020.

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