Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 17:50 UK

Disappointing move in Madeleine case

By Alison Roberts
BBC News

Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann has been missing for more than a year

The announcement that Portuguese prosecutors have shelved the investigation into Madeleine McCann's disappearance will be a bitter disappointment to those who believe that, with more work, she might yet be found.

It is also a huge embarrassment for police.

Though the Portuguese authorities have long stressed that searches for missing children everywhere have a low success rate, they have been accused of specific failings.

First, local police were criticised for failing immediately to seal off the apartment from which the three-year-old disappeared on the night of 3 May.

They were also accused of not alerting the authorities in neighbouring Spain swiftly enough that a child was missing.

But above all, the force handling the criminal investigation, the Policia Judiciaria (PJ), took the daring step last September of declaring Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, arguidos - or formal suspects - in the investigation.

Kate and Gerry McCann
The McCanns are no longer official suspects
It is now clear they did that without the evidence to back up their suspicions that the couple were involved in her disappearance.

The PJ's national director later described the decision last September as "hasty".

In fact, the status of arguido is designed to provide a person with protection - the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present - that witnesses do not have.

So police are legally obliged to declare someone an arguido if they put questions that indicate they suspect them of a crime.

Such questions were put to the McCanns, according to friends of the couple, in interviews last September in which they were declared arguidos.

But this status laid the by-now famous couple open to frenzied speculation, fuelled by apparent police leaks to local newspapers, picked up by British tabloids.

In the end, after separate libel actions, the McCanns and the other official suspect in the case, local British expat Robert Murat, won huge sums as a result.

'Blood and odour'

Another criticism of police is that the McCanns' holiday apartment was rented out again before all possible forensic work was done.

It was only in July last year that highly trained sniffer dogs were flown in from the UK.

They found what was thought to be blood and an odour suggesting the previous presence of a dead body in the flat and in a car hired by the McCanns some weeks after Madeleine's disappearance.

These were among the findings that prompted the dramatic shift in the police attitude to the McCanns.

We tried, and we worked hard. So we can't be accused of incompetence or failure
Former Policia Judiciaria inspector Goncalo Amaral
Portuguese police have countered criticisms of a delay by saying they only learned of the specialised dogs' existence when the British offered them.

In a recent interview with the BBC, former PJ inspector Goncalo Amaral, who co-ordinated the investigation until October, when he was taken off the job, defended his work.

"Let's wait, and people will see [from the files] that the Portuguese police and the British police did a good job - various British agencies were involved," he said.

"We tried, and we worked hard. So we can't be accused of incompetence or failure."

Many Portuguese were deeply offended at British press jibes against the PJ, which is one of the country's most respected institutions.

At times, those feelings spilled over into resentment of the McCanns, and public suspicion of them.

With the shelving of the investigation, Monday's statement makes clear, all three arguidos see that damaging status lifted.

But the case can also be reopened if further evidence emerges to warrant "serious, pertinent and consistent" investigation.

It is unusual for missing children cases to be shelved in any country.

But since Portuguese prosecutors were looking at the possibility not only of abduction but also of homicide, neglect, and concealment of a corpse - as court documents seen by the BBC make clear - not shelving the case would almost certainly mean the arguidos retaining that status unless someone else were charged.

Case files may open

The McCanns have also pressed for access to the case files - which were due to come open next month anyway.

Two weeks ago, the couple secured access to 81 pieces of information in the possession of Leicestershire police - thought to be potential leads phoned in by the public in the days after Madeleine's disappearance.

However, that falls far short of the thousands of items they had sought in a High Court action, dropped after they reached their agreement with the Leicester-based force.

The case files can now be opened to parties with a "legitimate interest", suggesting that the McCanns' private detectives could soon have myriad leads to follow.

At the same time, the files will attract many applications from the media, even if officials remove items whose publication would mainly infringe privacy, such as copies of personal correspondence.

Some details from the case are set to appear in a book to be launched this week by Goncalo Amaral.

In interviews given after his recent retirement, he batted away key questions about the case because it was still under judicial secrecy.

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