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Portugal: Minister resigns over child sex allegations

Publish Date: 08 Dec 2003

Agence France-Presse English Wire: by Daniel Silva

LISBON, - A minister in the regional government of Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores islands resigned Monday over what he said were false rumours surrounding his alleged involvement in a child prostitution ring.

Ricardo Rodrigues, agriculture and fisheries regional secretary on the archipelago since 2000, said in a statement he could no longer "ignore the wave of rumours" since they "affect my authority as a member of the government and hurt the image of the government".

He added he was not the target of any police investigation "referred to in the press regarding the sexual abuse of minors."

Weekly newspaper Expresso reported Saturday that police were investigating claims that a 37-year-old house painter, who was detained last month on child sexual abuse charges, procured underage children of both sexes for sexual encounters with top officials on the Azores.

Six youths told the newspaper Jose Pavao had put them in contact with wealthy public figures, including politicians and football players, who paid to have sex with them when they were between the ages of 8 and 12.

The youths said the encounters usually took place in a garage owned by Pavao on Sao Miguel, the largest and most populated of the archipelago's nine main islands.

Expresso said the six youths it spoke to named a local mayor, a priest, two high school teachers and a former Socialist member of government of the Azores as clients of the child prostitution ring.

On Sunday top-selling Correio da Manha reported that a member of the current regional Socialist government of the Azores had also visited the garage to have sex with the youths.

The paper said police have so far interviewed more than 20 children in connection with the case and have identified seven alleged clients of the child sex ring.

The scandal comes less than one year before the Socialist government of the Azores, which have their own elected regional assembly, faces elections.

Located some 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) off the coast of Portugal, the Azores are home to some of the European Union's poorest districts.

Many of the children interviewed by the two newspapers came from poor families from deprived fishing towns on the island.

"If I accepted doing this it is because I knew I would get something in return, but today I think they should pay for what they did because we were really young then while they knew what they were doing," one youth identified only as M.A. told Expresso.

This is the second child sex scandal involving minors and top officials to erupt in Portugal in little more than a year.

In November 2002 police in mainland Portugal arrested a driver at the nation's largest network of state homes for troubled children on charges that he sexually abused four minors in his care, including a deaf-mute.

Carlos Silvino faces 35 charges of child sex abuse. Prosecutors are considering further charges related to allegations he helped wealthy child molesters meet youngsters in his care since 1975.

Police have so far questioned twelve other people in connection with the case, and five of these -- including a popular television presenter and a retired ambassdor -- are currently behind bars in preventive detention while the investigation continues.

A former Socialist employment minister, Paulo Pedroso, spent more than four months in jail before an appeals court ordered his release on police probation earlier this month.

The case has dominated headlines in Portugal since it broke and has led to a sharp rise in child sex abuse complaints across the country.