What now for the McCanns, who are no nearer to finding out what happened to their child, asks Martyn McLaughlin
IT IS not the breakthrough they had prayed the Policia Judiciaria would make, but it is the next best thing. After ten months of whispers and smears, doubts and frustrations, Gerry and Kate McCann were yesterday formally cleared of any involvement in the disappearance of their daughter, Madeleine.
Faced with a paucity of evidence after a 14-month investigation, the office of Portugal's attorney-general, Fernando Jose Pinto Monteiro, said there was no proof that the couple had committed any crime, and that they were to have their status as arguidos, or formal suspects, lifted immediately. Robert Murat, an Algarve resident also named as an arguido, was cleared, too.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, the McCanns, both 40, tried to continue with a life ordinary by their standards alone. Mr McCann, a consultant cardiologist, attended work and carried out appointments, while Mrs McCann, together with the couple's other children, twins Sean and Amelie, visited a friend.
In a brief statement, after learning they had been formally cleared, the McCanns said it had been "utterly despairing" to have been named suspects in their daughter's disappearance.
Mrs McCann paused to gather her emotions, before delivering a prepared statement on behalf of her and her husband. She struggled at first to read it. The couple also insisted they "will never give up." Mrs McCann said the couple were looking forward to "scrutinising" the police files to see what could still be done to look for their eldest daughter.
Mr McCann wearily answered a question from a journalist about whether the couple would now return to Portugal. There were "no immediate plans", he said.
Asked if legal action against the Portuguese authorities was being considered, he said the priority had always been the search for Madeleine.
Kate and Gerry McCann vowed to continue the search for their daughter
Although Mr Monteiro – who had the option of bringing charges or asking police to continue their investigations – ordered the case to be halted, he said that it would remain on file for periodic review, and could be reopened "following a request from an interested party" should credible new evidence come to light.
Nonetheless, with the investigation now formally archived, it leaves the McCanns no nearer to discovering the fate of their child. If there are to be any future discoveries, the onus rests squarely upon Madeleine's parents and their private investigators. With it now being 447 days since Madeleine was last seen alive, they face a Herculean task to garner sufficient evidence to move the case forward.
It is understood that, in recent weeks, the McCanns have pared back the work being carried out by Metodo 3, a Spanish detective agency, in favour of a new team of unnamed British-based investigators. Metodo 3 was being paid up to 50,000 a month out of the Find Madeleine Fund, but it is understood the company now receives less than 10,000 a month for its input. The agency's head, Francisco Marco, came under fire last December after claiming that he knew who had taken Madeleine.
The regrouped team will doubtless benefit from the lifting of the official suspect status from the McCanns themselves.
The couple are hopeful that, now that any cloud of suspicion has been removed, they will garner support from the government, and further assistance from charities and donors.
Regarding potential lines of inquiry, Mr Mitchell said lawyers acting for the McCanns would be able to make use of the Portuguese police files by the end of the week.
Technically, lawyers have 20 days to appeal the decision to archive the case, although sources close to the McCanns suggest that is unlikely to happen.
Having long been kept secret, access to the files, however limited, is a vital development if they are to continue the search for their daughter, who was nearly four when she vanished from her family's holiday apartment in Praia da Luz.
Rogerio Alves, the couple's Portugal-based lawyer, said yesterday that he expected official notification from the Portuguese authorities in the next 48 hours to view the material.
The McCann team's portfolio of evidence was bolstered earlier this month when Leicestershire police agreed to share 81 pieces of information with the couple. The evidence related to tip-offs and reported sightings of their daughter, but all were received in the investigation's early stages. Whatever information lies in the Portuguese files might provide them with a fresh angle.
The reaction to Mr Monteiro's announcement, although welcomed by the McCanns, was nonetheless subject to criticism from some quarters. Mark Williams-Thomas, a child protection expert and former detective, said that while it was good news the couple were no longer considered arguidos, it was too soon to close the investigation.
He said: "We have lost sight of the most important thing here, and that is Madeleine. I don't believe that 14 months into an investigation you can put it on the shelf. I think this is appalling."
Mr Williams-Thomas said it was unclear how much time detectives would now devote to the Madeleine case, but urged them not to let it fade away.
"They have got to keep looking for Madeleine because if they aren't looking for her, who is? The Portuguese police are the people in the best position to find her."
John O'Connor, a former commander of Scotland Yard's flying squad, said: "If I were Clarence Mitchell, I'd try to put pressure on Jack Straw (the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor] to ask for a review of the case by British police. It's about time for transparency; there's been too much done in secret.
"At some stage, we have to be confident that all that can be done has been done … it'd be for the benefit of the Portuguese police's reputation."
He added: "One of the possibilities is that you might find strategic decisions have been made by Portuguese police that didn't stand up to scrutiny.
"Why didn't they search everywhere (around the holiday resort]? I can't make out why it was never done."
Joshua Rozenberg, a legal commentator, questioned the wisdom in any move by the Portuguese police to release evidence it had collated in the case, for fear it would prejudice any future investigation.
He said: "It's unprecedented for police simply to hand over evidence in this way. Who knows what future evidence could come to light? In this country, any prosecution would be tempered by the police having already shown their hand."
McCanns set to face 'explosive revelations' of ex-police chief
ALTHOUGH Portuguese prosecutors have cleared them of any involvement in their daughter's disappearance, the McCanns know they will soon need to fend off further allegations.
Later this week, the official who put them at the centre of the investigation will publish a book casting further aspersions on their role in the affair.
Goncalo Amaral, a controversial figure who was removed as head of the police inquiry on 2 October last year, was widely criticised for focusing his force's efforts on Madeleine's parents at the expense of other potential leads.
Now, his book, provisionally entitled True Lies, reportedly suggests Madeleine died accidentally in the couple's care, and her death was covered up.
Mr Amaral, 48, who has been accused of feeding smears about the McCanns to the voracious Portuguese press, promises "explosive revelations" in his memoirs, published on Thursday, but the couple's legal advisors will casting a keen eye over the precise details.
Mr Amaral yesterday denied he was seeking to profit from the case, and reaffirmed his belief that Madeleine died inside her parents' holiday flat.
"All I would say is I'm trying to contribute to the discovery of the truth," he said. "I worked 27 years as a police officer and my conscience can't accept that this is the first case that slipped through my fingers.
"The evidence we gathered by the time that I left the case pointed to the girl having died inside the apartment.
"I don't know what happened next. I can't say. We'll have to wait for the case files to be made public."
Mr Amaral also rejected suggestions that he and he alone was responsible for the McCanns' arguido status. He added: "In this case, it wasn't purely and simply a decision taken by Portuguese and British police. There were others involved – public prosecutors and the national directorate of the Portuguese police.
"They all knew there was a necessity to put everything on the table in light of the advances we had made … the combination of leads we had.
"There was no persecution. The police don't want to persecute anyone, just to investigate what happened."