Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 18:55 UK

Madeleine revelations offer few facts

By Steve Kingstone
BBC News

Madeleine McCann
Portuguese prosecutors shelved their investigation last month
There was no shortage of compelling lines of inquiry to emerge from the Portuguese police files on the abduction of Madeleine McCann released this week.

One possibility was that Madeleine was abducted by a loitering stranger, whose description was not circulated by police.

Another claim was that she was seen being carried by her own father, shortly before 10pm on the night of her disappearance.

Madeleine may have told a woman in an Amsterdam fancy dress shop that she was abducted while on holiday.

And she could have been kidnapped to order by a Belgian paedophile gang.

The fact is, though, that while all of these lines of inquiry featured in the files, the documents also showed that none of them produced meaningful results when investigated further.

'Not credible'

Specifically, Portuguese police decided the loitering "stranger" was, in all probability, a local musician.

Detectives accepted that Gerry McCann could not have been carrying Madeleine through Praia da Luz shortly before 10pm because other witnesses placed him at the Ocean Club's tapas restaurant.

Portuguese sources have told the BBC that the richly-detailed sighting of Madeleine in a Dutch costume shop was judged "not credible".

In most cases, the sensational lines of inquiry were dismissed long ago by Portuguese and/or British police

And the Belgian kidnap-to-order theory stemmed from an anonymous phone call, the significance of which is being played down by the Metropolitan Police.

The documents, released to journalists on Monday as a CD-Rom, contain 11,223 pages of witness statements, photographs, e-mails and expert testimony.

On their own, the myriad potential sightings of Madeleine - from Spain to Serbia, Mexico to Indonesia - take up a 14-volume annexe, stretching to 2,550 pages.

Unsurprisingly, the police have not given details of every single outcome. Instead, a foreword to the sightings annexe states that, although well-intentioned, many witness accounts were "of little substance and purely speculative."

Wryly, the police report points out that "Madeleine" was sometimes seen "on the same day, in places 4,000km apart."

Eager media

Having been starved of hard facts about the case for 15 months, in line with Portugal's judicial secrecy laws, journalists are now eagerly sifting through the files and unearthing genuinely insightful details.

But it's worth bearing in mind that these revelations are "new" only to reporters and the public.

In most cases, the sensational lines of inquiry were dismissed long ago by Portuguese or British police or both.

Gerry and Kate McCann
The McCanns' daughter disappeared days before her fourth birthday
There is also a fierce war of interpretation, with different media outlets assuming opposing positions.

For example, one Portuguese tabloid, which still harbours suspicions surrounding Kate and Gerry McCann, has focused on the "possible compatibility" (a phrase from the final police report) of Madeleine's DNA with samples taken from the couple's hire car.

By contrast, UK newspapers have highlighted the more cautious tone taken by Britain's Forensic Science Service, which warned that the results were "too complex for meaningful interpretation."

Likewise, Portuguese media have used police photographs of the McCanns' apartment to allege that the couple and their friends somehow altered the scene of the crime - an allegation which is vehemently denied.

Back in Britain, tabloid newspapers have seized on apparently unresolved sightings of Madeleine to denounce the Portuguese police as incompetent.

Interpretation

In the days ahead, there will be more revelations, and they will no doubt help sell newspapers.

One Portuguese editor told me that since 3 May last year, his tabloid had carried 170 front pages related to Madeleine, and sales had leapt by 25%. I imagine a similar effect has been seen in Britain.

However long these intriguing stories run, the epic police files really boil down to three basic facts.

CCTV footage of a girl in a Algarve petrol station on 4 May 2007
The material included CCTV images of a child in a petrol station in the Algarve
They are: Madeleine McCann went missing on the night of 3 May 2007; there are no certainties about what happened to her; Kate McCann, Gerry McCann and Robert Murat have all been explicitly cleared of involvement in her disappearance, after prosecutors found "no proof that they committed any crime" (press statement by the attorney general).

And if you want one paragraph which sums up the tragedy of these events, turn to volume 17, page 4,647, in which the Portuguese public prosecutor outlines his conclusions.

"No element of proof was found... as to the circumstances in which the child was taken from the apartment (whether alive, whether dead, whether the victim of negligent homicide or wilful homicide, whether the victim of kidnap-to-order or an opportunistic kidnap).

"We can't even make a consistent prognosis of her fate, including... whether she is alive or dead."

Curiously, the prosecutor then adds that "it seems more probable" that Madeleine is dead.

But like so much of what we are now seeing and hearing, his words are interpretation rather than fact.





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