Death of a Romani man in police custody in Portugal

10 September 1998

Paul Summers

On the night of June 8, 1994, around 10:30 pm, Mr Romaão Monteiro, a 31-year-old Portuguese Rom known as "Gira", was arrested for possession of heroin during a police raid in a Romani settlement near the hospital Magalhaães Lemos at Oporto. Witnesses claimed that the police opened fire several times and treated Mr Monteiro violently. They also stated that the persons raiding the camp did not identify themselves as police officers. There were several dozen persons involved in the raid, some in uniform, some not. Some of the persons who stormed the camp were carrying machine guns. One woman was subjected to a body search which included inspecting her private parts, in complete disregard of her right to be searched by a policewoman. Police officers also allegedly beat other individuals, including children.

While at the settlement, officers reportedly hit Monteiro with the butt of a handgun. They broke his teeth while interrogating him about the whereabouts of his car. Witnesses also reported that the police smashed his head against the ground and that he was pushed towards the camp fire in order to force him to talk. Mr Monteiro was then taken to Matosinhos Police Station where he died in the early hours of June 9, around 1:00 am, from a gunshot wound to the head. The legal grounds for the police action on the night of June 8 were called into question by the fact that the Romani settlement was outside the jurisdiction of the Matosinhos police force, and the fact that officers reportedly did not produce arrest or search warrants.

The first official version of the incident released by the police claimed that Romaão Monteiro had committed suicide while in custody. He had allegedly had grabbed a police officer's gun and shot himself. Witnesses at the station stated, however, that they had seen Romaão Monteiro go into a room with his hands handcuffed behind his back and that a shot was heard soon thereafter. This was followed by remarks such as: "I've messed up" and "You don't know how to work, you can't do this to a man". The police version of suicide did not convince judicial authorities, who decided to arrest Officer Domingos Antunes, one of the three officers in the room and the person to whom the gun was licensed, on suspicion of homicide. Domingos Antunes was, curiously, not on duty at the time of Mr Monteiro's arrest and at the time when the interrogation took place. His shift was due to start only some time after the incident.

The autopsy on the body of Romaão Monteiro revealed that he could not, in fact, have shot himself as claimed. His hands had no traces of gunpowder on them. With regard to signs of violence the newspapers were contradictory. Weeks after the killing, police still had not changed their initial position that the death was a suicide. No one was ever held accountable for the attempted cover-up, which was rumoured to have received the support of senior officers in the police. During a reconstruction of the crime at the police station on June 15, 1994, a new version of Mr Monteiro's death was put forward: accidental mishandling of the gun was to blame for the death of Romaão Monteiro.

The trial of Domingos Antunes took place during the months of March and April, 1995. Police presence around the court building and Matosinhos Police Station during the trial was unusually high; over one hundred police officers were involved, streets were closed as well as nearby schools, access to the area was restricted and thorough searches were made at the court entrance.

Romaão Monteiro's family lawyers had asked for 12 years imprisonment and a ruling of qualified homicide. After hearing several contradictory versions of the events, the court ruled that the killing had been unintentional and that the death of Romaão Monteiro happened by accident. The version of events which was ultimately accepted by the court was that the Officer Antunes had been summoned the previous day to undergo a dangerous pursuit and had loaded his gun with one bullet. He then later forgot that the gun was loaded. When he pointed the gun at Mr Monteiro and pulled the trigger, he was oblivious to the fact that it was loaded and his aim had only been to frighten. The behaviour before the court of the two other officers present in the room where the killing occurred was shameful. Asked about the events that night, they claimed not to remember crucial details, in obvious solidarity with the accused.

Officer Antunes was convicted of negligent homicide under Article 13, Article 15(b) and Article 136(2) of the Criminal Code, and sentenced to three years imprisonment and expulsion from the police force. Taking into account Officer Antunes alleged remorse, previous good conduct, and this being his first offence, the court ruled that the sentence be suspended for four years. Domingos Antunes walked free after ten months in jail. The prosecution appealed to the High Court, but Officer Antunes was not placed in custody and only had to report to the police periodically.

The High Court ruling was pronounced on December 4, 1995. It decided to reduce the sentence to two years and ten months, and rejected the sentence on expulsion from police service on the grounds that it was not possible for the lower courts to decide upon expulsion from public service under the new penal code that had since come into force. An internal investigation was opened the same month by decision of the Minister of Internal Administration, but in October 1997, Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern that no findings had been made public, as well as the fact that there were indications from authorities that it could take several years before a final decision would be reached. On March 16, 1998, Officer Antunes was reportedly expelled from the police force by decision of the Minister, yet recently a senior police officer stated that Antunes had been transferred to airport service, considered by everyone to be a more prestigious position. According to AI, in August 1998 the officer was thought to be appealing against the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court - if he succeeds, he will be reinstated and compensated for loss of earnings.

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