SEF Director Resigns Amid Scrutiny Over the Death of Ukrainian Citizen at Lisbon Airport

The resignation of Cristina Gatões comes nine months after the murder of Ilhor Homenyuk while in the custody of SEF at the airport.

The national director of Serviços de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF — Portugal’s immigration services), Cristina Gatões, resigned last week in the wake of an investigation into the murder of Ukrainian citizen Ilhor Homenyuk while in the custody of SEF at Lisbon’s Airport nine months ago

Gatões has been under growing pressure and public scrutiny as a result of the case. Less than a month ago, in her first public interview since the investigation began, Gatões told RTP (Portugal’s public services broadcasting) that there were clear indications of torture in Homenyuk’s case. She also said that Homenyuk’s true cause of death was not transmitted to her at the time. Gatões said “what was communicated to me was that there had been a death of a foreign citizen at the CIT [Temporary Holding Facilities] caused by cardiopulmonary arrest resulting from a series of seizures,” according to RTP. 

Gatões also acknowledged that the officers involved attempted to cover up the murder, and said such acts are inadmissible. 

Three SEF officers have been charged for Homenyuk’s death, and a total of 12 SEF inspectors have had disciplinary proceedings launched against them after the Inspecção-Geral da Administração Interna (IGAI – Inspectorate General of Home Affairs) found they were implicated in the case. In the same investigation, the IGAI confirmed that there had been a concerted effort to cover up the facts.

Gatões’s exit appears to be triggered by a new wave of scrutiny that arose after Diário das Notícias reported that the new holding rooms at the airport are equipped with panic buttons, which raised a new wave of concerns as to why such a mechanism would be necessary at the facility. 

Gatões’s resignation has sent a shock wave through the Ministério de Administração Interna (MAI – Ministry of Internal Affairs). A growing number of parliamentary members from different parties are calling for political consequences, with some going as far as to demand the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Eduardo Cabrita, reports Público.

The MAI released a public communication sharing their plan to restructure SEF, saying the goal is to “establish a very clear organic separation between police functions and administrative functions for the authorization and documentation of immigrants.” 

The MAI added that “the redefinition of responsibilities in border control and criminal investigation (…) should be carried out during the first half of 2021.”

Gatões will be replaced by the national deputy director, José Luís do Rosário Barão, who will oversee the restructuring of the agency with Fernando Parreiral da Silva, current acting national deputy director. 

Homenyuk traveled to Portugal on March 10 and was denied entrance into the country, although Ukrainian nationals don’t require a travel visa to enter the European Union. He was held in the temporary holding facilities found at the airport. 

Public prosecutor, Óscar Ferreira, in a recount of the events leading to Homenyuk’s death, said that at 8h15 the three defendants arrived to the room where Ihor was held, with one of them telling the security guard, “Listen, you’re not going to write our names there, ok?” according to Público. According to Ferreira, the men then proceeded to handcuff Homenyuk’s hands behind his back, and repeatedly punched and kicked him, the publication writes. They allegedly continued to beat him as he lay on the floor, and after 20 minutes left the room, with one of the accused officers reportedly saying, “With this today, I don’t even need to go to the gym anymore,” according to Público. 

Homenyuk remained handcuffed for 15 hours after being physically assaulted. According to the investigation performed by the IGAI, the coroner who examined the body found it was the combination of being beaten and then left with his hands cuffed behind his back for several hours that resulted in Homenyuk slowly asphyxiating to death. Homenyuk died after being in SEF’s custody for two days, on March 12.

Ihor Homenyuk is survived by his wife and two children. In a recent interview with SIC, the victim’s widow, Oskana Homenyuk, says her children don’t know the true cause of their father’s death. She says, “I never thought something like this could happen in a European country. In Europe, where human rights are above everything.”

Oskana expressed difficulty understanding how this happened to her husband. As she put it, “He wasn’t a criminal, nor a terrorist, nor a murderer, he was a normal person… He went on a trip for a few days, he was supposed to be back soon, and now he’s no longer here!”

Atlas reached out to SEF to obtain further details of the restructuring plans but did not receive a reply in time for publication. 

On December 10, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced on Twitter that the Portuguese government decided to pay compensation to Homenyuk’s widow and children. 

“I expect that as a result of the investigation, the court will determine the proper punishment for the perpetrators,” he wrote.

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