Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-PORTUGAL: Neo-Nazis on Trial

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Apr 9 2008 (IPS) - Neo-Nazis are on trial in Portugal for their “pathological and irrational hatred of ethnic minorities,” according to the charges filed by the Attorney-General’s Office against 36 members of the small but active local chapter of an international white supremacist organisation.

The trial against the skinheads, who belong to the Portuguese branch of Hammerskin Nation, began Tuesday, and the sentence is expected to be handed down within a month, which would be a record for Portugal’s slow-moving justice system.

The long list of charges they face includes assaults, kidnappings, illegal possession of weapons and ammunition, racial discrimination, distribution of neo-Nazi propaganda and sales of steroids to finance their organisation.

The Portuguese constitution expressly prohibits any discrimination based on “gender, race, language, national origin, religion, or political or ideological conviction.”

The constitution, drafted in the heat of the 1974 “Carnation Revolution” led by leftist army captains who overthrew the Estado Novo dictatorship that took root in 1933 inspired by the Italy of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, also bans “racist groups or organisations with a fascist ideology.”

The leader of the accused skinheads, Mario Machado, has been in preventive detention for the past year. The other 35 defendants, including Machado’s two deputies Vasco Leitão and Rui Veríssimo, were granted conditional release but are subject to electronic monitoring by means of bracelets that track their movements, and must periodically report to their parole officers while they await sentencing.

Machado had earlier been sentenced to four years in prison for heading a group of 15 skinheads who beat and kicked to death Alcino Monteiro, a 27-year-old Portuguese citizen of African origin, in June 1995.

The case that came to trial this week dates back to an April 2007 nationwide joint operation by different police forces and the militarised National Republican Guard, which searched local Hammerskins offices and arrested the group’s members.

The Hammerskin Nation originated in Texas in the late 1980s, but has since become a well-organised international movement with chapters throughout the United States and in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and a number of European countries.

The 36 skinheads are also accused of posting Internet threats against Judge Cândida Vilar, who sentenced Machado to preventive detention.

In the 240-page accusation, the prosecutors mention several examples of racist propaganda on neo-Nazi web sites, in which the defendants “promote hatred against blacks, gypsies, Jews and homosexuals.”

The document also cites the Portuguese band “Odio” (Hatred), which performs exclusively at concerts organised by white power skinheads.

The band recently taped “Morte aos traidores” (Death to Traitors), an album that includes the song “The Horrible Jew”, whose lyrics say “Oh horrible Jew! You are going to die tonight/You are going to die tonight for the victory of our night/Die, die”.

According to the prosecution, the defendants took part in violent actions aimed at “unleashing a racial war with the intention of fighting for the supremacy of the white race, thus subverting the functioning of the constitutionally established institutions of the state of law.”

The accusation states that the group’s ideological orientation is similar to that of Italy’s neo-fascists and Britain and Germany’s neo-Nazis.

Despite the evidence against the group, Machado’s defence lawyer José Manuel Castro said in statements to the TSF-Radio Jornal station in Lisbon Tuesday that the trial had a “political bias” and was thus incompatible with “the rights, freedoms and guarantees enjoyed by citizens.”

Because of the scant popularity of the extreme-right in Portugal, one of the most racially heterogeneous countries in Europe, the skinheads’ defence attorneys have apparently decided on a strategy based on the argument that the court is “simply prosecuting ideas,” as Castro stated.

José Falcão, head of the non-governmental group SOS-Racismo, which fights for the rights of immigrants and against xenophobic groups, told IPS that “we would like to see these people brought to justice for once – these people who threaten and issue death sentences against human rights activists, who even insult the president (Aníbal Cavaco Silva), without anything happening to them up to now.”

“It is not even necessary to invoke the constitution to bring the xenophobic extreme right to trial for their crimes, because they commit crimes that are covered by the penal code,” said the activist.

Falcão has become a well-known national figure after his years of fighting police brutality against immigrants from Brazil and former Portuguese colonies in Africa, as well as dark-skinned Portuguese citizens.

The extreme right in Portugal often feels “encouraged by what is happening in many police stations, where violence is common, including threats, bodily harm, illegal detention and even murders in custody,” said the activist.

Most cases of police brutality go unreported by immigrants from former colonies like Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tomé and Príncipe or Brazil, “due to their fear of being deported.”

Falcão knows all too well what he is talking about. As he was returning home one day in 1995, he tried to defend three African immigrants who were being beaten by the police. Not only did the police continue their beating, but they arrested and brutalised the activist as well.

“The problem is that the 1995 case was not an exception, the result of police excess. A decade later, in 2005, a young African man was shot to death by a police officer in a shopping centre and the judge acquitted the officer, accepting his argument that his weapon was fired accidentally,” said Falcão.

The only person sentenced in that case “was me, to 20 months in prison and a 4,000 euro fine, because I criticised the verdict handed down by the judge, who prosecuted me for libel.”

“In other words, in Portugal it would appear that criticising a judge can be more serious than killing someone,” said Falcão.

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