Madeleine McCann's parents win libel damages in trial of police chief

Gonçalo Amaral, who led investigation for missing girl in Portugal in 2007, is found guilty of libelling Gerry and Kate McCann and ordered to pay €500,000

A former Portuguese police chief has been ordered to pay the parents of Madeleine McCann €500,000 (£357,953) in libel damages after accusing them of faking their daughter’s abduction.

Gonçalo Amaral, who led the botched police search for the three-year-old in 2007, has been on trial at Lisbon’s Palace of Justice over claims he made in a book about Madeleine’s disappearance.

Gerry and Kate McCann told the trial last year of their “devastation, desperation, anxiety and pain” at being accused by Amaral of hiding their daughter’s body.

In a lengthy ruling on Tuesday, Amaral was found guilty of libelling the pair and ordered to pay them €250,000 (£179,170) each in damages, plus €106,000 (£76,000) in interest. The judge also banned further sale of his book, the Truth of the Lie.

The ruling comes days before the eighth anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance on Sunday. She vanished from her parents’ holiday apartment in Praia da Luz on the evening of Thursday 3 May 2007, triggering the biggest missing persons investigation for decades.

The McCanns said after Tuesday’s verdict that they were delighted with the judge’s ruling and stressed that the action was never about money.

In a statement issued by their family spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, they said: “We are delighted with the judge’s verdict today. We want to emphasise the action was never about money. It was entirely focused on the effect of the libels on our other children and the damage that was done to the search for Madeleine.

“A lot has changed in the six years since we launched the action and we are pleased that there is still an active investigation in both Portugal and the UK. We would like to remind people that there is still an innocent little girl who is missing and that those responsible for her abduction remain at large.”

A renewed Scotland Yard inquiry, launched in 2011, has so far failed to make a significant breakthrough. In the past year, detectives have carried out fresh ground searches and interviews with witnesses in the Algarve resort.

Kate and Gerry, who were originally seeking €1.25m (almost £900,000) in compensation from Amaral, said the damage caused by the retired officer’s book was exacerbated because it could stop people coming forward with information if they believed his assertion that Madeleine was dead. However, the judge’s 52-page ruling said €500,000 compensation was “adequate and proportional” to the damage caused by the allegations.

Amaral’s book, which was a bestseller in Portugal, was particularly controversial because it was released just three days after the Portuguese attorney general’s office decided to shelve the search in July 2008.

The court said it was not proven that the allegations made in the book “contributed to hindering, in any way, the course of the investigation” into Madeleine’s disappearance.

Isabel Duarte, the McCanns’ lawyer, declined to comment on the libel result but said she had sent Kate and Gerry a copy of the ruling.

Giving evidence in the libel trial last year, Kate McCann told how her son asked if she had hidden his missing sister’s body after hearing Amaral’s claims. She said she and Gerry had taken advice from a child psychologist on how to answer questions asked by Sean, nine, and his twin sister Amelie.

Kate added: “They know Mr Amaral has written a book and about the documentary. They obviously don’t know the detail. We had advice from a child psychologist. He told us to let the twins lead the conversation so if they ask a question try to answer it honestly. I believe what’s in Mr Amaral’s book and the documentary is very distressing to adults. To a child it could be very, very damaging.”

Describing the moment Sean asked her about Amaral’s claims, Kate said: “Sean asked me: ‘Mr Amaral said you hid Madeleine, didn’t he?’ It was October last year. I just said: ‘He did. He said a lot of silly things.’”

She told the judge, Maria de Melo e Castro, that Amaral’s claims were even more damaging because they could prevent potential witnesses from coming forward with information if they believed his insistence that Madeleine is dead.

Amaral, who was dropped from the Madeleine investigation after several blunders, vowed earlier last year to countersue the McCanns. Writing on Facebook, he said he would launch “a lawsuit against the McCann couple and others to be compensated for enormous damage they caused me – moral, professional and financial”.

He added: “The time to judicially react to those who put my privacy, intimacy, freedom of expression and opinion and survival at stake is approaching. They have tried to assassinate me civilly. But due to the support and solidarity of all of you, they were not successful.”

In October last year, the McCanns were awarded £55,000 in libel damages from the publisher of the Sunday Times over an article which alleged that the couple deliberately hindered the search for their daughter.

That settlement came six years after the couple negotiated a £550,000 payment to Madeleine’s fund from Express Newspapers over a series of defamatory articles in the Daily Express, Sunday Express and the Daily Star.


Josh Halliday and Brendan de Beer in Portugal

The GuardianTramp

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