Mondego ‘mutiny’: lawyers defending unlucky 13 sailors say Navy has ‘erased evidence’

Ship has been thoroughly cleaned, and repair material flown to Funchal

Lawyers for the 13 sailors facing disciplinary action for refusing to set out on a mission on a patrol boat riddled with problems claim the Navy has ‘erased evidence’ ahead of their clients’ hearings tomorrow in front of Judicial Military Police in Lisbon.

A source linked to the defence has told Lusa news agency “the ship Mondego “was all cleaned” on Wednesday, before two television channels went to the site, while a plane loaded with material flew into Funchal (where the Mondego is docked) to allow repairs to the ship, he added.

The source said the Portuguese Navy’s version is that the Mondego was in “condition to set out to sea” and that this was “proven by an inspection“. Only the inspection was carried out by the Navy on its own, without the presence of any other entities – and based on that inspection, repairs on board then went ahead.

Thus on Monday, when the 13 military personnel – a number with years of service and commendations – are to be heard by military police, as part of a criminal investigation, defence lawyers “will ask for evidence” (pre-Wednesday clean-up), hoping that this “will not be hindered”, in order to get to the truth.

The 13 soldiers who refused to board the Mondego for a mission to accompany a passing Russian warship will be heard over two periods on Monday, in the morning, starting at 10am) and the afternoon, starting at 2pm). The men are being defended by lawyers Paulo Graça and Garcia Pereira.

Speaking to Lusa last Thursday, Paulo Graça criticised what he called the “disturbing” statements made by the Navy’s Chief of Staff Admiral Gouveia e Melo, in front of television cameras and the garrison of the Mondego on Thursday – suggesting he/ the Navy had conducted a form of trial in the public space, without giving the men a chance to defend themselves.

Gouveia e Melo “has already expressed a judgement” on the facts which the Navy itself has presented, “without anyone having heard the interested parties and what they have to say about this situation”, he said.

The NRP Mondego famously did not carry out a mission last weekend to accompany a Russian vessel north of the island of Porto Santo, Madeira, because 13 members of the garrison (four sergeants and nine privates) refused to board for safety reasons.

On Thursday, the head of the Navy, Admiral Gouveia e Melo travelled to Funchal to ‘confront the men eye-to-eye, face-to-face’ (his words). But instead he gave a speech to the entire garrison, in the presence of a press possé, in which he said: “The Navy cannot forget, ignore, or forgive acts of indiscipline, whether the soldiers are tired, unmotivated, or concerned about their own realities”.

Questioning the sailors, he said: “What interests did you defend? Certainly not the Navy’s, your own much less so. We can only overcome difficulties if we are united, and you have disunited us”.

For all the talk about discipline, there has been criticism of Gouveia e Melo’s own role in this drama, with some columnists suggesting he has handled it badly. That the ship had technical problems is without doubt: one of the two engines were down, one of the three generators wasn’t working, there were various oil leaks, water leaks and an issue with the sewage system that apparently posed a fire risk.

The Navy’s response has been that ‘these ships are built to continue functioning in less than optimum states’.

But as Rui Pereira, university professor of Law has pointed out, “there are times when you need disobedience, as Salgueiro Maia, the hero of the Abril 25 revolution in 1974 taught us”.

As for the Portuguese Armada able to operate with so many technical issues, he likened the Mondego story to “worthy of a Monty Python film, if it wasn’t so serious. From what we can understand, the boat was not in good order (one engine didn’t work, and there were failings in the generators). The first question is: did it make sense to send a boat out in this condition to escort a battleship? If I have understood everything correctly, the explanation was that being out of order didn’t impede a slow and prudent escort. All that was missing was to ask the Russians not to navigate too quickly…”

Whatever happens tomorrow, it is clear that the 13 men facing military police feel their side in this episode has been ridden roughshod over; as do their families.

Media reports in the meantime say that if it is confirmed that the men were ‘insubordinate’, “they could face a criminal case in the civil courts where the penalty could reach four years in jail”.

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Portugal Resident