Portuguese elections hit by phone-tapping scandal

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The Independent Online

An illegal phone-tapping scandal in which more than 60 politicians and judges are embroiled has overwhelmed campaigning for Portugal's presidential elections next Sunday.

The outgoing socialist president Joao Sampaio and the former socialist prime minister Antonio Guterres are among those whose telephone calls are said to have been recorded during unauthorised investigations into a high-profile case of child sex abuse in the country's biggest orphanage.

Mr Sampaio, who has served two terms and will step down after the elections next Sunday, called in a televised address late on Friday for an urgent and rapid investigation into the phone-tapping allegations.

"Violations of ... private lives, through illegal phone tapping or other intolerable forms of intrusion in the private lives of the Portuguese cannot be allowed," Mr Sampaio told a shocked nation.

The state prosecutor's office reportedly tapped the telephones of more than 200 people and copied the conversations on to five computer disks. The disks were then put into a so-called "Envelope Nine" that was slipped into the case file on the Casa Pia paedophile case, according to Portugal's 24 Horas newspaper.

Such confidential recordings are supposed to be handed to the authorities only on the orders of a judge. The attorney general, Jose Souto de Moura, whose conversations were also reportedly tapped, denied the reports, but agreed to launch an inquiry.

"I think the story has extremely serious elements," Mr Souto de Moura said. "The most rigorous inquiry possible will be carried out which will investigate everything related to this case, and the necessary consequences will be drawn from its findings."

Rumours of widespread phone tapping have flourished throughout the Casa Pia child-sex scandal, which reaches to the top of Portugal's political and social elite. Those on trial since November 2004 over the sexual abuse of minors include a former ambassador, an MP and the country's best-known television presenter.

Many MPs are pressing for increased oversight of police wiretaps, which the authorities say average 8,000 a year. Portugal's judicial investigations are believed to be conducted in an unaccountable manner. For months, Mr Souto de Moura has been under pressure to resign over leaks from the investigation into the Casa Pia scandal.

The phone company Portugal Telecom supplied Casa Pia investigators with records of 79,000 calls made from 208 private phones between December 2001 and May 2002, 24 Horas reported. Portugal Telecom said it had handed over the records in 2003 following a court order, and had provided the phone numbers without the clients' names. But the newspaper said it found no warrants in the voluminous case files relating to Casa Pia that authorised the phone taps.

Main contenders in the presidential poll have treated the furore with kid gloves. Polls put the free-marketeering Anibal Cavaco Silva, 66, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher who was conservative prime minister from 1985 to 1995, far in the lead. Mr Cavaco kickstarted economic growth in Portugal, but entrenched gaping inequalities. The country continues to have Europe's widest economic inequalities.

The socialist warhorse Mario Soares, 81, trails a distant second, but in an interview in Madrid's El Pais newspaper yesterday he predicted that he would prevent Mr Cavaco from winning an absolute majority, and force a second round.

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