By Michael Holden, LONDON (Reuters) 17/07/2008 18:07
A suspect in the disappearance of schoolgirl Madeleine McCann in Portugal last year won 600,000 pounds in libel damages on Thursday for “the utter destruction” of his life.
The 10 newspapers involved in the case had accused Robert Murat, who lived in the same resort where McCann vanished last May sparking an international search, of being involved in the girl’s disappearance.
Although he was questioned by Portuguese police soon after Madeleine McCann went missing from her parent’s holiday apartment in the resort of Praia da Luz and later declared a formal suspect, he was never charged and denied any involvement.
“The newspapers in this case brought about the total and utter destruction of mine and my family’s life and caused immense distress,” Murat said outside London’s High Court.
“I am pleased that the publications concerned admitted the falsity of their allegations and I can now start to rebuild my life.”
Murat had often spoken to reporters in the days just after the disappearance of Madeleine from her bedroom, saying she looked like his daughter in England. His mother’s house was about 150 metres from the resort apartment where the McCann family was staying.
However, tabloid newspapers in Britain made a series of “made-up” allegations. The court heard these included claims Murat had an interest in child pornography and might have been part of a paedophile ring involved in McCann’s abduction.
Publishers of the papers involved — with a combined circulation of 15 million copies — apologised, admitting the claims were untrue, and agreed to pay the damages.
Murat’s lawyer Louis Charalambous said his client had had watched silently as “the worst elements of the British media” destroyed his good name and reputation.
“The behaviour of tabloid journalists and their editors has been grossly irresponsible, demonstrating a reckless disregard for truth,” he said.
It is the second time British papers have been sued for the coverage of the McCann case.
In March, Madeleine’s parents Gerry and Kate McCann, who spearheaded a high-profile global hunt, won 550,000 pounds in damages from the Daily Express and Daily Star over stories which suggested they might have killed their daughter.
The papers then issued front page apologies for the “baseless” reports and donated the damages to a fund set up to find the missing girl.
Despite the worldwide hunt and numerous reported sightings of McCann, who disappeared a few days before her fourth birthday, no confirmed trace of her has ever been found.
Earlier this month, Portuguese police sent their final report on the case to prosecutors, with local media reporting that detectives had ended their investigation.
The McCanns and Murat still remain official suspects although reports said police had found insufficient evidence to bring charges against anybody.