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Plans for a Building Shed Light on Its Dark Past

Lisbon: Former home of Portugal's secret police is to be converted into luxury apartments. But some say a museum acknowledging abuses would be a better fit.

April 07, 2002|BARRY HATTON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LISBON, Portugal — The squat four-story building stands in a side street, a spooky presence just off one of Lisbon's most popular shopping districts.

Silent amid the downtown bustle, its thick, white-stone walls conceal a bare, crumbling interior of shadows and doors that creak in the wind. Pigeons peer out from shattered window panes.

The city council lists it among 1,400 abandoned or decrepit buildings in Lisbon, many of which are to be renovated as part of an urban renewal program. Its ghostly insides are slated to become luxury apartments, offering a prestige address and prized view of the River Tagus.

But the plan has become a controversy because of the building's past.

For three decades, it was the secret police headquarters for one of western Europe's last dictatorships.

Thousands of political dissidents were taken there, some to be tortured, and some people are demanding it be preserved as a public memorial to those who opposed the 41-year dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, which ended with a 1974 army-led revolution.

Antonio Dias Lourenco, an 87-year-old member of the Portuguese Communist Party, accuses city politicians of disregarding the past in their rush to modernize. He wants the building to be turned into a museum.

"It's a mistake," he said of the renovation project. "It's a building of historical significance for Portugal, a monument to the struggle for freedom. We can't just forget."

Suspected dissidents were taken for interrogation to the building in the Chiado, an elegant district renowned in the 19th century as a gathering place for artists and writers.

"I was barbarically beaten there on two occasions," in 1949 and 1962, Dias Lourenco said. He spent a total of 17 years in prison for alleged political crimes.

He was taken to the infamous third floor, he said, where officers used electric shock and truncheons to force him to reveal his contacts in the underground opposition.

"They used to tell us, 'The law doesn't enter here,' " he said.

Known by its Portuguese acronym, PIDE, the International and State Defense Police used undercover agents and paid informants to intimidate dissidents into silence.

Iva Delgado, widow of air force Gen. Humberto Delgado, who confronted Salazar and was killed by the PIDE in 1965, noted that the Brazilian ambassador's residence used to be across the narrow street from the secret police headquarters.

When the ambassador's wife complained about screams coming from the building, the police told her it was the screech of the electric trolley passing by, Delgado said.

Nowadays, the relic of Salazar's rule barely elicits a glance from commuters on the No. 28 trolley trundling down the sloping street toward the broad Tagus.

Lisbon, a city of about 550,000 people, has no landmark skyscrapers, and the building fits snugly into its surroundings.

The 18th-century building, in a district that was mostly destroyed by a 1755 earthquake, has little architectural value, but has a rich history.

It was owned by the family of Portugal's last king, Manuel II. The monarchy ended when he was deposed in 1910 and a republic established.

The state paid the family rent for use of the building, but after the fall of Salazar, it was abandoned and handed back to its owners.

The only reminder of its inglorious past is a plaque next to the tall main door. It memorializes four men who were shot to death in the street by PIDE officers when the building was besieged by a vengeful mob on the day of the 1974 revolution.

The plaque is daubed with graffiti--another sign of the city's modern trends.

Next door, the Sao Luiz theater is an example of the city's successful renovation program. After years of decay, it is now painted yellow with white trim--a traditional Lisbon color scheme. Other renovated buildings sport striking pink or bright-green paint.

The city council says it cannot force the private owners of the PIDE building to turn it into a museum. The Culture Ministry says it prefers to spend its own budget on computerizing the dictatorship's archives.

Julia Pereira Branco, 73, who has lived behind the old PIDE building for 67 years, takes a pragmatic view. "It's falling down. I just want to see someone do something with it," she said with a shrug.

Margarida Barreto, whose real estate company plans to develop the site, said she doesn't expect people to balk at living in the building because of its dark past.

"History passes," she said.

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