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Madeleine: El Pais Interview with PJ’s National Director, Alípio Ribeiro

El Pais

by MIGUEL MORA - Lisbon
21/10/2007

INTERVIEW: ALIPIO RIBEIRO National director of the Judiciary Police

"The hypothesis that Madeleine died is the strongest"


The person responsible for the investigation of the “Madeleine case” tries to clarify the facts whilst under an unprecedented media pressure. Sooner or later the truth will be known, he affirms. And those responsible will be judged in Portugal.

Question. How do you feel about directing such a media dominated case?

Reply: . Well, it is certainly true that the case of Madeleine has surpassed the limits of pure police work, for very different reasons it has awoken great international interest and has been developed much further than its policing aspect. It has an enormous media source, which no policeman in the world has been able to control. But this has nothing to do with us, if it had happened in a few kilometres further away, in Spain, or in France, it would have been the same. The case has many elements that have fed media interest, there are many protagonists, it has been very public since the beginning and imagination has been lit up. … People create their version of the story and tell it, it seems as though all of us are suddenly criminal investigators.

Question. Everyone except for you and the British police is talking. At least officially. Because there have been many filtrations and leaks.

Reply. There have been, without a doubt, but less than would appear. Journalist’s imagination has also worked intensively. What is certain is that the police must have the serenity to separate history and fantasy from the policing. We cannot let ourselves be carried away by emotion, we must maintain all open hypotheses and walk step by step.

Question. Does this mean that there is still much to be done in order to reach a conclusion?.

Reply: .I am convinced that, sooner or later, we will have a result. I cannot say when. That would not be balanced on my part. But I am optimistic. The police, by nature are optimistic, because they have to uncover mysteries, but they have to work without preconceived ideas and have an open mind to all possibilities.

Question. But the first chief, Gonçalo Amaral, is certain that Madeleine died on the 3rd May.

Reply. That he was certain, I do not know, I think it is better not to have certainties in order not to have surprises. There is, in effect, a hypothesis that has gained some veracity and has greater strength, but we are not excluding anything. If there is a lead that says the girl has been sighted in some place, we must investigate it and eliminate it. Although, it is true that during the first phase, the investigation was directed almost exclusively to the abduction thesis.

Question. Some people have criticised this option: There are scarcely no precedents of child abductions in Portugal and police literature does not take into account abductions from closed buildings because predators act in open areas. …

Reply. It is true that there is very little tradition of this kind of abduction in Portugal, but we cannot eliminate this possibility. The parents are foreigners, and everything was analysed without discarding any means.

Question. Was there any failure to investigate the parents from the very first moment, given that there were such confusing witness statements and that they were the last to see the girl?

Reply. It is easy to say that now.

Question. Are you suggesting that there was pressure to give priority to the abduction theory?

Reply. We have never been pressured in any direction. Collaboration with the British police has always been loyal and respectful.

Question. But it was the family group that suggested the paedophile abduction route....

Reply. Yes, but the British police have never interfered, they could not. It is obvious that if we need information the British police will provide it. As would the French, Spanish or any other European police force. But we lead the investigation.

Question. As this is a British context, with British suspects and a British victim, it would be logical to think that more help would be provided.

Reply. It was a British context and we are far from having a precise idea of what happened that night. It is true to say that the context has made things very difficult.

Question. Have you had the feeling over the last months that you were fighting against a machinery that was too powerful for the means of the PJ?

Reply. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that. Firstly, we have never had insufficient means in this case, although it is certain that that the unreasonable international interest has multiplied the presumed sightings of the girl and the false leads to a level that would have been excessive for any police force in the world. Secondly, I am still not in possession of the truth, so I cannot make any moral opinions about this campaign. I do not have results yet, I do not know what happened that night.

Question. Did the British police suggest brining the dogs, which ended up turning the investigation around by 180º?

Reply. They proposed it, yes, because they are very rare animals that we do not have and of great reliability. Although they do not give conclusive proof, the dogs enable use to explore another line of investigation.

Question. Do you thin that this strange case will have a simple solution? Or do you believe that that will take new turns?

Reply. I have my ideas about this, but I cannot say anything about this. The only idea that I can transmit is that, whatever the meaning of what happened that night, it was a dramatic situation for those who experienced it.

Question. You have said that this is a difficult case. Have you been critical of the PJ?

Reply. There are many missing children cases in the world and sometimes nothing is known about them for years. But none of these cases has this external component, this social glow that gives it a fantastic almost unreal dimension..Any police force would be uncomfortable in such a scenario, with this excess of public exposure. You have to have very tight nerves in order to be systematic in these conditions. Now we are going to give the investigation a new impulse and also analyse fearlessly what we have done, not to judge or to criticise, but to try to understand indications that we perhaps did not understand correctly at the time.

Question. Did you ever imagine that you would become famous due to a case like this?

Reply. I will not become famous for this case. But I know the drama of the persons who have been close to it (he refers to Gonçalo Amaral). Therefore I know that wherever I go, even to far away places, everyone is talking about the case, it is always on the table.

Question. Is the PJ’s prestige in doubt?

Reply. No, neither that of Portugal or the Policía Judicial is in doubt. People will not stop coming to the Algarve on holiday because of this. Neither will the country’s image change. But all police forces in the world would like to resolve a case like this and resolve it well.

Question. Some people believe that the case will remain unsolved.

Reply. I hope to be able to close the case. We are not yet able to do so, but if we view the case from a distance, little time has passed. Many similar cases have taken longer and been resolved.. I think that this will also be the case here. We have an idea of what happened. I do not guarantee this, but I feel this will be the case.

Question. As regards the sending of a new team of investigators from Lisbon, what meaning does this have?

Reply. In the initial moment we made a large human investment in the case in order to discard all the leads that kept arising. Then a team of a half a dozen investgators was put into place, a normal dimension for similar cases. Now we have added a new structure of reflection in order to analyse the fundamental issues once again. Many investigations change during their course because this tends to help them advance. In the US, the FBI frequently does this. . It helps to rethink, to see what was well evaluated, what was underestimated...

Question: . How many men do you now have working on the ground?

Reply. More than a dozen.

Question. That would seem to be many.

Reply. This is not just any case: It was obvious from the first moment that this would not be an easy case.

Question. Do you say this because of the immediate presence of journalists in P de L? Or because of the involvement of the Foreign Office in the parents’ campaign?

Reply. I have never felt political pressure. And the British police have never been an obstacle. From the beginning they have been magnificent collaborators..

Question. But the spokespersons for the McCanns have strongly criticised the work of the PJ. …

Reply. Yes, but they talked with the family and the press, not with the police. And it must be understood that the British press also works in this way. They made unfair remarks but we cannot react to this on a daily basis and play ping pong, the PJ against the British press. We are not interested in this game: We have a different tradition to theirs, one of less communication and the judicial secrecy that restricts us.

Question. Up until now, leaks have favoured speculations that the McCanns qualify as very suspicious. Do you not feel that the PJ should inform them officially instead of letting this information land in the press?

Reply. According to the new Procedural Code, all proceedings will be public and the secret will be the exception. This is a change of paradigm and we will have to improve our means of communication and mount a better press strategy. But even the best strategy in the world would not have been able to disprove this mixture of leaks and imagination. It is impossible to work with this. Only an American style crisis management cabinet could do this. But this is not created from one day to the next.

Question. Will you take over the communications about the case?

Reply. I want to be close, but I cannot take this on. In cases such as these there is never much to say, so as not to prejudice the investigation. If speaking means to hinder, anything we volunteer could ignite the fire even further..

Question. What will you do when the laboratory results arrive from Birmingham? In spite of the fact that everyone in the UK is already talking about them....

Reply. When they arrive we will ponder what we can and what we cannot say. Much contradictory information has come out, rumours and noise, but it is irrelevant. These are very complex analyses, they are difficult to carry out. I know that when the British police know the results, we will know then as well. And I also know that the Birmingham laboratory is one of the best in the world.

Question. Amaral, the coordinator whom you took off the case for criticising the British police in a newspaper, thinks that the key to the case lies in the DNA analyses. Do you share the same faith?

Reply. They may be of much help, in a definitive sense, in order to clarify what happened. But there are no elements that on their own can resolve an investigation. The analyses are complementary to other elements. They must be viewed with serenity and distance. The police must be encouraged but not be passionate

Question. Last week Amaral updated Paulo Rebelo, the new chief sent from Lisbon about the case. Does this mean that Amaral will continue to help with the case?

Reply. Of course.

Question. The McCanns already have a very sophisticated team of lawyers. Do you think that the PJ can mount a solid accusation

Reply. We have already done a big job of analysing and discarding hundreds of tests and leads, but in all investigations there is a key moment, a click that clarifies everything and helps the end to be reached. We have not yet arrived at this click.

Question. If there were to be trial, would this be in Portugal?

Reply. We would first need to define the facts and then those responsible. Of course, the trial should take place here, even without those accused. But this is a very distant question which we have not yet considered. And it does not mean that we think that those who are to be tried are British citizens.

Question. For weeks it has been said that a commission to interrogate the friends dining at the Tapas bar on 3rd May is being prepared. Is the commission ready yet?

Reply. Yes, it is ready and will travel in a few days with a team of police officers and with the Portimão public prosecutor.

Question. In the last months, you have had, for if it was small, the innovation of the possible presence of ETA in Portugal. How has he answered the Judicial Police to this new challenge?

Reply. I have already given instructions so that there is started fulfilling the agreement signed by the ministers of Justice and Interior to form mixed teams of magistrates and police officers. We have a marvellous relation with our Spanish companions and hope that they should send to us all the necessary information to keep on investigating in a joint way.

Question. Do you believe that ETA has infrastructure here?

Reply. At the moment, there is no guarantee of which it has it. We know that they have happened somewhere here, like some other Spanish, but we do not think that they have a logistic base at the level of those that they have in France, for example. For a cultural reason, especially, because Portugal is not a way known for them, they are not accustomed. But we are very attentive to any movement, and keep on collaborating narrowly with Spain, since it was seen in the detention of The Solitary one, which was model. Europe every time is smaller, and the future possible only one for the police officers is to collaborate increasingly.


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