Madeleine McCann’s parents lose legal battle over detective’s book

The European Court of Human Rights upholds a freedom-of-expression decision by Portugal’s Supreme Court pertaining to a police inspector’s hypothesis about the little girl’s disappearance

Gerry and Kate McCann
Gerry and Kate McCann in Praia da Luz, Portugal, shortly after reporting the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine (inset) in August 2007.ARMANDO FRANCA (AP)

Gerry and Kate McCann, the parents of little Madeleine, who disappeared in 2007 from an apartment on Portugal’s Algarve coast, have lost their latest court challenge. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled in favor of Portugal’s Supreme Court, which in 2017 acquitted Gonçalo Amaral of having libeled them in his book, Maddie: The Truth of the Lie. The Amaral was the police inspector who led the initial investigation. The McCanns had appealed to the ECHR over a Portuguese court’s decision in their libel challenge over Goncalo Amaral’s claims. The Portuguese high court decided that freedom of expression should prevail over the McCann’s claims of libel. “This couple’s entire strategy has collapsed,” Amaral told EL PAÍS. “They wanted to win so, they could say they had nothing to do with it [Madeleine’s disappearance], but their lawsuit against me and the later court appeals were civil cases, not criminal. It was not about who was guilty of [Madeleine’s] death, but whether I could publish the book,” said Amaral.

The ECHR ruling notes that the Portuguese court made a “careful assessment of the balance between respect for private life and Gonçalo Amaral’s right to freedom of expression.” Amaral’s book was published in 2008, a year after the three-year-old girl disappeared from the Praia da Luz apartment where she had been sleeping with her two baby brothers. Amaral’s book puts forth the hypothesis that the parents staged the little girl’s abduction after she died accidentally. Gerry and Kate McCann had left their three young children asleep in the apartment while they dined with friends in a nearby restaurant.

The McCanns’ complaint against Amaral was initially upheld when a Portuguese court banned publication of the book and documentary film. Amaral was forced to recall copies that had already been distributed on the grounds that he had damaged the couple’s reputation and invaded their privacy. However, subsequent appeals turned in favor of Amaral when Portuguese courts determined that the McCanns had voluntarily relinquished their right to privacy by conducting media interviews.

The ECHR ruling agreed with the Portuguese courts and noted that prior to publication of Amaral’s book, the McCanns had themselves publicized their daughter’s disappearance “using communication agencies and publicists” and had continued their media campaign after the book’s publication. “It did not appear that the book, or the broadcasting of the documentary, had a serious impact on the applicants’ social relations or on their legitimate and ongoing attempts to find their daughter,” stated the ECHR ruling.

Gonçalo Amaral
Gonçalo Amaral led the Portuguese Judicial Police’s investigation to find Madeleine McCann for five months.Miguel Ribeiro Fernandes

Regarding the allegedly damaging information in the book, the EHCR points out that the same information appeared in the summary of the police investigation, and was “therefore public.” Amaral has always highlighted the evidence of blood and other biological traces belonging to Madeleine detected by British police dogs in the family car and the apartment. This evidence led the Portuguese Judicial Police to declare the McCanns official suspects, and continues to be the basis for Amaral’s main hypothesis. Amaral was removed from the case on October 2, 2007, and he ultimately resigned from the Judicial Police after 27 years of service. “The book doesn’t invent anything new. It just repeats information from the police summary, which included the hypothesis of an accidental death and staged abduction,” said Amaral in our phone interview.

Kate and Gerry McCann, British businessman Robert Murat, and Russian computer scientist Sergey Malinka were all official suspects for a year until the Portuguese police removed all four from the official suspect list. When the case went cold, the investigation was closed until 2020, when a new lead from Germany pointed to a new suspect – Christian Brückner. The 44-year-old German had been convicted of raping a woman in the same area where Maddie disappeared. The Portuguese police had investigated Brückner in 2007 in the McCann case, but did not press any charges against him. In May 2021, shortly before the 15th anniversary of the disappearance, the Portuguese Judicial Police declared Brückner an official suspect to avoid expiration of the 15-year statute of limitations for such cases.

Cellphone records indicate that Brückner, who is imprisoned in Oldenburg (Germany) for sexual assault, could have been near Praia da Luz the night of the disappearance. A witness also testified that he heard Brückner boast about knowing where Madeleine McCann was. In Gonçalo Amaral’s opinion, this was “a fabrication of a false suspect” in order to “influence” the ECHR while it deliberated on the McCann’s case.

The McCanns now have three months to appeal the ECHR ruling. In a statement released after the decision, the couple expressed their disappointment and said that they sued the detective for only one reason: “Mr. Amaral’s unfounded accusations could have a negative impact on the search for Madeleine. If the public believes that we were involved in her disappearance, then it will not be alert to possible leads or report relevant details.” The McCanns said the focus is now rightly on the search for Madeleine and her abductors.

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