September 26, 2019 / 6:24 PM / 25 days ago

Former Portuguese minister to face trial over weapons theft cover-up

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal’s former Defence Minister Jose Azeredo Lopes will face trial over his alleged role in a suspected army cover-up of a theft of weapons from a military base more than two years ago, the public prosecutor’s office said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Portugal's Defence Minister Jose Alberto de Azeredo Lopes talks to the media during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

Azeredo Lopes, who denies the allegations, served as the defense minister in the Socialist government from November 2015 to October last year, when he resigned amid an investigation into the theft.

The theft of grenades, anti-tank rockets, other explosives and ammunition from a military arms depot was discovered in June 2017 and caused a furor in Portugal. Questions arose about security at armed forces bases of the NATO member country.

The stolen military material was worth around 35,000 euros, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Prosecutors initially suspected international arms traffickers and terrorist groups of having stolen the weapons and taken them out of the country, but military police recovered the weapons in October 2017.

In total 23 defendants, including military personnel, will stand trial, with nine being accused of planning and carrying out the theft, as well as of terrorism and drug trafficking.

Prosecutors said they “cut the net fence, entered the perimeter of the military installation, destroyed storerooms’ locks and removed several boxes of military material belonging to the Portuguese army stored there”.

The remaining 14 defendants, including the former defense minister, were accused of abuse of power, favoritism, denial of justice and misfeasance. Azeredo Lopes has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

A trial date is yet to be announced.

The scandal damaged the image of Portugal’s ruling Socialists but they remain favorites to win an Oct. 6 parliamentary election. Prime Minister Antonio Costa told journalists he wanted the scandal out of the election campaign.

Reporting by Catarina Demony

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