Thousands protest in Lisbon for animal rights amid constitutional dispute

LISBON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Dog owner Sandra Almeida made a long journey to the Portuguese capital Lisbon on Saturday to join thousands of people who took to the streets to give animals a voice as the constitutional court ponders if mistreating pets should be classed as a crime.

"The justice (system) cannot turn a blind eye to the evolution of times," Almeida, 52, said as people whistled and shouted slogans. "Many animals are today part of our families and nothing justifies horrible crimes."

Almeida, who has five rescue dogs, travelled nearly 250 kms (155 miles) from the northern Portuguese city of Aveiro for the demonstration, which was organised by the Animal Intervention and Rescue (IRA) group.

Portugal's public prosecutors had on Wednesday asked the constitutional court to declare unconstitutional a law that criminalises with a fine or jail time those who mistreat their pets.

According to public prosecutors, the court has already made decisions that pointed to the alleged unconstitutionality of the legislation. On one occasion, a dog owner who threw his puppies into a rubbish bin was initially convicted but later acquitted.

The court argues the country's constitution cannot protect pets as if they were humans, Expresso newspaper reported.

After being criticised by IRA for not speaking up about the issue, Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a statement on Saturday that a law punishing those who mistreat animals was an "indisputable requirement".

Standing on top of a truck covered with images of neglected cats, dogs and horses, IRA President Tomas Pires told a sea of protesters it was in everyone's hands to protect animals.

Holding a banner, Filipe Vicente, a 45-year-old dog and cat owner, described the current situation as a "notorious setback".

"I think this is one of the main signs of a civilisation that claims to be developed but that in reality isn't," Vicente said.

Reporting by Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira; Editing by David Holmes

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Thomson Reuters

Portugal-based multimedia correspondent reporting on politics, economics, the environment and daily news. Previous experience in local journalism in the UK., co-founded a project telling the stories of Portuguese-speakers living in London, and edited a youth-led news site.