Over the past decade, Lisbon’s city hall has regularly shared the personal information of human rights activists with a variety of repressive regimes, exposing them and their families to untold danger.
The practice was exposed Friday after a group of Russian dissidents revealed earlier this week that city authorities had shared their personal data with the Russian embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow.
After initially brushing off the incident as a bureaucratic mishap, municipal authorities on Friday admitted it was actually part of city hall’s standard operating procedure: Since 2011 city employees have disclosed the names, identification numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers of activists to countries that protesters were targeting.
Authorities had the information because of a local ordinance that requires activists seeking to hold protests to submit that personal information to city hall, which would then forward information to the police officers tasked with ensuring the events are carried out in a safe environment.
But the discovery that such information was also being shared with repressive regimes — including Angola, Venezuela and China — has stunned and dismayed Lisbon-based dissident groups, who are now worried that their leading members might be in the crosshairs of foreign governments.
And it’s called into question Portugal’s status as a place of refuge for political exiles, as well as its reputation as a country that defends the right of free expression. Already, Lisbon’s mayor is facing calls to resign and international civil rights leaders in the country are bemoaning the stain they fear this will leave on Portugal’s global perception.
“I found out this morning and I’m honestly in shock,” said Alexandra Correia, coordinator of Portugal’s Tibet Support Group, who told POLITICO that her personal information was shared with the Chinese embassy in April 2019 after she applied for permission to hold a rally in favor of the 11th Panchen Lama, who has been detained by Chinese authorities since 1995.
“It’s especially bizarre because our protest was held on the Largo de Camões, which is nowhere near the Chinese embassy, so city hall can’t even argue that they informed them for security reasons,” Correia said.
The activist said that the revelation had scared her and terrified her daughter, who is now worried about what might happen to family members in Tibet, where Chinese authorities still practice capital punishment.
“This situation can’t be written off as a bureaucratic mishap,” Correia said, adding that she would join other dissident groups in pressuring city hall to respond for its actions. “It’s a grave violation of my privacy, of my fundamental rights as a European, and it’s unacceptable that this has been going on in a democratic country within the European Union.”
In addition to Correia, representatives for the Committee for Solidarity with Palestine told the Portuguese media they had also discovered their information was shared with the Israeli embassy. That group expressed concern over how Israeli secret services might track their members, and cited a Haaretz article reporting on Mossad’s database of activists who speak out against the Israeli government.
The scandal surrounding Lisbon’s information sharing practices has put Mayor Fernando Medina in a delicate political situation just four months prior to the city’s municipal elections.
On Thursday, the conservative opposition candidate, Carlos Moedas — a former EU commissioner for research and science — called for Medina to resign over the incident. Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa called the disclosures “deeply regrettable,” and said that in a democratic nation everyone deserved to have their fundamental rights respected.
Medina took to national broadcaster RTP on Thursday night to publicly apologize for what he deemed a “bureaucratic error,” which he said was the result of the city following “outdated laws.” Although he accused the opposition of using the scandal to get “political leverage,” the mayor acknowledged that city hall’s internal procedures needed to be changed in order to ensure that the situation was never repeated.
Pedro Neto, executive director of Amnesty International’s Portuguese affiliate, said that changing procedures was not enough, and demanded that Lisbon go further to protect those it had put in “grave danger.”
“Protests have been held in Lisbon against the imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs in China, and city hall gave the Chinese embassy not only the information to locate the organizers here in Portugal, but to go after their families in China,” Neto said. “It’s unbelievable that our government has been complicit in that repression.”
Neto said that the city of Lisbon now had the moral obligation to do a comprehensive review of all data shared with foreign powers, and to inform all the outed activists. “Evidently, both our interior and foreign affairs ministries need to be involved so that the affected parties can have their protection ensured within Portugal, and their families’ well-being guaranteed abroad.”
The Amnesty International director called the affair a “national embarrassment” and said that it reinforced the impression that Portugal was just a “small country that’s subservient to economic giants.”
“In the same way that Lisbon has failed to defend human rights here, our national leaders have failed to do so during their turn in the presidency of the European Union,” Neto added, referencing Portugal’s period as rotating president of the Council of the EU, which ends in July.
“We could have been standard-bearers for human rights and the founding values of the EU, but instead we’ve kept a low profile, and now we’re ending our presidency with this scandal at home.”
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