One of Portugal’s best-known anti-racism campaigners, Mamadou Ba, will face trial for defaming a neo-Nazi activist whose case has been upheld by the Portuguese public prosecutor general.
Ba, who was given a 2021 Human Rights Defenders at Risk award by the NGO Front Line Defenders, risks a prison sentence or fine if convicted.
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Mario Machado, the founding member of several extreme-right movements, including the Portugal Hammerskins, Frente Nacional (National Front) and Nova Ordem Social (New Social Order), claims Ba “injured his honour” in a 2020 social media post that Machado lawyers say called him “a killer”.
Ba’s defence lawyer Isabel Duarte says the accusation is baseless as the post in question has been misquoted.
“Speaking objectively, there has been no crime; and speaking subjectively, I would say there is no honour there to be offended or injured; so, it’s an impossible crime,” she told Al Jazeera.
In 2012, Machado was sentenced to 10 years in prison for grievous bodily harm, racial discrimination, blackmailing a public prosecutor and illegal weapon possession, in three separate cases.
He is best known for having been at a neo-Nazi gathering in Lisbon’s city centre in 1995 that was followed by a spate of 11 separate, violent attacks on Black individuals in the vicinity, including Alcindo Monteiro, who died from his injuries two days later. Monteiro was 27 years old.
Nine of those who had been at the same event marking Portugal Day, including Machado, were arrested in connection with the attacks.
Portugal Day holds a special significance for extreme-right movements because during Portugal’s Estado Novo – the colonial dictatorship that lasted until 1974 – it was celebrated as “Race Day”, commemorating the “Portuguese race”.
Machado was found guilty of committing “bodily harm” in the June 10 attacks and sentenced to four years in jail. He was not among the 11 people convicted for Monteiro’s murder.
“Monteiro’s murder left a deep impression on people’s memories,” said Miguel Dores, whose documentary film Alcindo deals with the context and ramifications of the killing nearly 20 years later.
“People are still deeply moved – even traumatised – by the event. Those who remember it say it was the moment they realised that racism could kill. At film screenings, people have wept, been physically sick, have had to leave the room …”
Dores believes the resurgence of the memory of Monteiro’s murder “is related to the fact that today those responsible for it are free and organised, at a time when there is a growing racial hatred, but also a growing struggle against racism” and says he hopes his film will help people to understand Monteiro’s murder “not as an isolated, exceptional event, but as the result of deeply structural and organised racism in Portugal’s past and present”.
Target of hatred
Exposing and discussing racism at all levels of Portuguese society is what has made Mamadou Ba such a high-profile figure in recent years – as well as a target of hatred.
Formerly one of the directors of the NGO SOS Racismo, which investigates, documents, and organises against racism in Portugal, Ba became the subject of numerous campaigns and threats.
In August 2020, neo-Nazi activists wearing white masks and carrying torches emulating 1930s Nazis paraded outside the SOS Racismo offices in central Lisbon.
In 2021, an online petition to have Ba deported, despite being a Portuguese citizen, was circulated with over 20,000 signatures.
João Carlos Louçã, an anthropologist who was one of the people behind an online campaign in 2021 called “Mamadou Ba Stays” and is now part of the Mamadou Ba solidarity campaign, told Al Jazeera that “Mamadou represents everything that these people hate; a Black man who’s proud of his roots, who’s not afraid to speak out, who’s not afraid of the weight of his words; he’s someone who doesn’t lower his eyes in the face of this colonial past”.
Louçã believes the extreme reactions to Ba’s posts and statements “reveals that there is much to be resolved in relation to the colonial past … we need to let go of the idea that Portugal was beneficial to those that were colonised. But it’s only been 50 years, and these things are still being worked out”.
Filipe Teles is a reporter who was part of a recent investigation drawing connections between Portuguese extreme-right movements, employees of the police forces, and the new, far-right political party Chega, which gained 12 seats in the 2022 Portuguese general election.
“We’ve noticed a significant rise in hate speech in Portugal since André Ventura, the leader of Chega, was elected to parliament in 2019,” said Teles, who works for the independent media project Setenta e Quatro (a reference to the 1974 revolution in Portugal that brought an end to the fascist dictatorship and to Portuguese colonialism).
The collaborative investigation that Teles was part of in 2022 included a detailed analysis of social media posts by police officers of various ranks.
“The second most frequently mentioned person is Mamadou Ba,” said Teles, who calls most of the posts and comments “unspeakable”, and who has pages and pages of screenshots detailing violent racist slurs against Ba.
‘Impossible to talk’
Ba told Al Jazeera that “it’s become impossible to talk about police racism, or to denounce racist violence”.
“Anyone that tries gets attacked online, bullied, taken down in public, and their words are taken out of context to reinvent them as enemies,” he said.
In addition to the online campaigns, there have been numerous attempts to take Ba to court – but until now they have always been dismissed.
Ba expressed concern about the decision of the prosecutor general to pursue this particular case, brought by Machado.
“Essentially, the authorities are saying that racists and anti-racists are the same,” he said.
The prosecutor general and the investigating judge did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
For Ba’s lawyer Isabel Duarte, the wording of Ba’s post is one of the most important details in the accusation: “He didn’t say that Machado was a killer, but that he was one of the people bearing the most responsibility for the events of 10th June , which is clear.”
The case prepared by Machado’s lawyers about Ba’s social media post says that “the spreading of this slanderous lie … has caused upset in his personal and family life”.
Ba left Portugal last year to move abroad, saying he feared for his life.
“It has got to the point where I can’t walk in the street on my own safely,” he said.
The trial is expected to take place in January next year.