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A terrifying culture of impunity | Prof Henry Frendo

The murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruna Galizia shocked the country, and also exposed a level of criminality that was hitherto mostly invisible. Prof Henry Frendo, of the University of Malta’s History Department, outlines why such events tend to underscore pivotal societal changes

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
29 October 2017, 7:30am
Henry Frendo: 'Apart from putting Malta in a bad light, I don’t think it is fair to describe Malta as a ‘mafia state’ | Photo: James Bianchi
Henry Frendo: 'Apart from putting Malta in a bad light, I don’t think it is fair to describe Malta as a ‘mafia state’ | Photo: James Bianchi
The crime that was committed on October 16, in which Malta’s best-known investigative journalist was killed by a car-bomb as she was leaving her home in Bidnija, elicited a nationwide outpour of grief, shock and outrage. As both a historian and an academic who has extensively researched the history of the Maltese press... how do you assess the impact on our collective psyche as a nation? Would you regard this murder as a ‘historical event’, comparable to other vicissitudes of the past?

Yes I would. If you look at the case of 1929, for instance: when Gianni Miller shot at Prime Minister Strickland as he entered the courthouse... that made a tremendous impact at the time. Pages upon pages in the Daily Malta Chronicle were dedicated to it.  It was something which shocked the country, at a time when political tensions were running high. There was a problem with the Church; problems with the Governor, Du Cane. There was the possibility of an early election... but eventually, there was no election at all. The Constitution was suspended shortly afterwards... 

On that occasion, however, the assassination failed...

Yes: it was a failed assassination attempt on the Prime Minister. Not only did Miller fail to kill him, but he didn’t even hit his target. It was more of a gesture, I think, than a really motivated, planned murder attempt... and it was carried out by a one-armed bandit. Literally: he had one arm. He was a Nationalist fanatic: a bit of a vagrant, who would sleep at the PN kazin in Senglea. And he had already been in trouble with the law. In fact he had been jailed after the Sette Giugno... and he was jailed again – 15 years with hard labour – for shooting at Strickland. But this case is not quite the same. We knew who Gianni Miller was. He was recognisable, and committed the crime in broad daylight. He wasn’t hiding... he might have been an assassin, but he wasn’t a coward. And he got his just desserts. 15 years with hard labour is no joke. The worrying thing about this case is that it was all planned out in minute detail... that makes it quite unlike previous cases.

Daphne’s murder has also been described (both locally and overseas) as a ‘political assassination’. Do you share that view? 

It depends what you mean by ‘political’. So many things are ‘political’... smuggling fuel from Libya to Sicily is ‘political’: not in the sense of a Maltese general election; but ‘political’ in the sense of organising a strategy to make millions of euros out of contraband. This was a mandated murder. Now, the question is whether it was mandated by some Libyan militia leader, or some local gangster.

You seem to be assuming that the Libya-Italy fuel smuggling lead, currently being followed by investigators, is in fact the correct hypothesis...

It’s my assumption. Of course, it could be something else. Daphne criticised everyone... and she didn’t hold back her punches. And we also have this new phenomenon called ‘blogs’: which didn’t exist before. Before, you wrote in the newspaper.  Or gave a speech. And you could risk being interdicted by the Church... or having your newspaper shut down, as happened to one of the very first Maltese newspapers in 1838. The editor was a priest who was out of favour with the Catholic hierarchy. We’ve had many instances of that: in 1930, 1961. But this is something different. There isn’t any political/religious turmoil at the moment. So it’s clearly about something else...

Could it have something to do with the way Malta has changed since the times you allude to? You mention blogs... the Internet, social media... but Malta is now globalised in other ways. Our status as an EU member State, as well as our taxation regime, has attracted enormous direct foreign investment. Ultimately, criminals also benefit from the free movement of goods, capital and people. Do you see a link between the socio-economic developments of the recent past, and the (apparent) rise of new and deadlier forms of criminality?

There are certainly differences in the way criminals operate. There were no car bombs before, for instance. Not until fairly recently, at any rate. Gangsters have been killed in the past, but they were usually knifed. If you look at the case of ‘Iz-Zus’, for example - a notorious thug who was stabbed to death in Hamrun - it was more in the style of ‘Arab-Mediterranean’ doings. But blowing people up to bits.... that’s something quite new for Malta. Quite new. Even if you look at the attack on The Times of Malta in 1979, which was bad enough: probably the nearest in terms of outrage, certainly in recent times... because we were talking about the 1920s before. This was the 1970s. What is worrying, even when you compare the 1970s with the 1920s, is that in 1929, the culprit was caught and put in prison. In 1979, on the other hand... even though I’ve heard various names mentioned, and some of the gangsters involved were recognised... there wasn’t a single arrest made. That was next door to the Prime Minister’s office. And when the Opposition leader’s wife was beaten up at her home in Birkirkara, after the gutting of The Times... again, no one was arrested. So, I guess, this is what the Opposition leader is on about today,  and civil society in general. The culture of impunity. If that’s what it is, it’s very frightening....

Others might also mention the case of Karin Grech, also killed by an explosion, and also in 1979. That case remains unsolved to this day...

Yes. Raymond Caruana is another example. He was machine-gunned to death in a drive-by shooting, while having a drink at a party club. It wasn’t intended to kill him, of course. He was just behind the door.  But Karen Grech wasn’t the intended victim, either. The letter bomb was addressed to her father. These are all violent crimes which have never been solved. Not quite as dramatic as a car bomb, though. We’ve had several car bombs in recent years, where there were none before. So there is a new culture of car bombs... if you can call it a ‘culture’. If you ask me, it’s a degeneration. It doesn’t say much for social evolution, except in the wrong direction. But who has ever been arraigned over car bombs in Malta? Nobody. I think it’s terrifying, frankly. Even [Former Italian premier] Aldo Moro’s assassins were eventually found. And with [anti-mafia judges] Falcone and Borsellino, there were massive manhunts for the killers.

There are differences in those scenarios, though. Moro was murdered by the Brigate Rosse, which was ultimately a politically-motivated terrorist cell. And it claimed responsibility for both the abduction and the eventual execution. Here, we are talking about a situation where anyone with money or contacts can hire a criminal organisation to kill anyone...

 The question here is whether we have our own version of the ‘Brigate Rosse’. I don’t think so, but we definitely have an underworld. When the owner of the San Lawrenz Kempinksi resort [Joe Baldacchino] was shot on his way to court in Valletta, by a chap on a motorcycle who then disappeared... we still don’t know anything about that crime. We don’t know if the murderer was Maltese, or if he had a speedboat waiting for him somewhere. I think that’s quite possible. Same with the case of Fathi Shaqaqi, one of the leaders of the Islamic Jihad, who was gunned down outside the Diplomat Hotel in Sliema in 1995. He was probably killed by Israeli intelligence. So if you begin to list them all, it becomes more frightening still. This was not a one-off... 

Meanwhile, there are public calls for the resignation of the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General, as well as for an overhaul of Malta’s law enforcement infrastructure. What are your own views? Do you agree that Malta’s institutions need to be revamped?

Yes. I would have thought that advances in technology should not only benefit murderers, but also those who are paid to catch them. Maybe we don’t have the sophisticated equipment required. But of course, this is not unique to Mata: many murders don’t get solved worldwide. Those involving explosives, in particular. But in the cases of Baldacchino in Valletta and Shaqaqi in Sliema... both were hit-and-run murders: at point-blank range, and with bulls-eye accuracy. These were the work of professional killers.  What does that say about Malta’s police force? I think the police corps – if not the intelligence service - needs to be looked at very seriously...

What about calls for the resignation of Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar?

It’s not just about persons, but persons matter as well. Quite frankly, I’m not very impressed with the current police commissioner... but I’m not impressed by the fact that police commissioners change every year, either. This is not serious... 

It is also a fact that similar calls for Constitutional reform have been made for years. Two areas that were specifically mentioned in the past have direct relevance to the issue of law enforcement. The fact that the AG doubles up as both counsellor to government, and also head of the prosecution office...

That’s bad.

… and also the autonomy of the Police Force, in a country where police commissioners are appointed directly by the executive arm of the State. How would you propose addressing these shortcomings in practice?

Unfortunately the police force in Malta has had some nasty hits in the past. We had one police commissioner who was accused of murder, and landed in jail. I don’t think it looks good at all, when a police commissioner doesn’t last his term. We’ve had some who succeeded: Vivian De Gray, for example, who was highly respected within the corps. But that was in colonial times. Even John Rizzo, though, was there for some 12 years. He had a good stint running the corps. So I think that changing police commissioners at a fast rate makes for instability and disorientation in the corps. I was hoping that Michael Cassar would be a good commissioner, but unfortunately he resigned when he received the FIAU report... which apparently indicted a couple of bigwigs. So to what extent is the police force really ‘autonomous’? If it is not autonomous, how does the police investigate and take action against Cabinet ministers, for instance?   These are serious crimes that could land them in prison. It gets tricky. Unless there is a consensual arrangement at the selection stage of police commissioners, or the heads of other authorities which are responsible for maintaining public order, we will be going round in circles. You change one, but what about the next one?

But how can one possibly guarantee consensus? Is there a specific reform we can all agree upon, which could eliminate the government’s prerogative to appoint police commissioners?

If we‘re going to stick to just one office, the police commissioner... the suggestion on the table is that he or she should be at least selected by a consensual agreement among politicians. But if we’re talking about Constitutional reform, one could think of other possibilities....

There could, however, be problems with the ‘two-thirds majority’ proposal for public appointments. It is already a requirement to remove a sitting judge... yet on two separate occasions, attempts were made to impeach sitting judges, and no consensus ever materialised. If the same thing happens with public appointments, we could end up without a Police Commissioner at all. Secondly, it doesn’t address the autonomy issue. Why does an autonomous police force need Parliament to appoint its Commissioner? Who not appoint its own commissioner, through a system of internal promotions?

I think a lot of civic and public space is taken up by politicians on this island. I don’t think it’s an advantage at all. In fact, it’s become boring. But what your question presumes is that there is sufficient maturity in society to allow for responsible decisions regarding public affairs. Politicians have some responsibility there as well, because they are still looked up to, by some people, as role models. Not by everyone anymore, however. And maybe less and less so over time. But what do other countries do? Why does Scotland Yard, for instance, have such a good reputation? Or the FBI? Even in Italy there have some very courageous and impressive moves to clean up the police force... and also to restrain the Mafia. There have been considerable successes in that regard...

Speaking of which, Malta has also been described as a ‘Mafia State’...

I think it’s a gross exaggeration. Apart from putting Malta in a bad light, I don’t think it is fair to describe Malta as a ‘mafia state’. On the whole, we’ve had quite a solid judicial tradition in Malta: even in the worst of colonial times. We’ve had judges who rose to the occasion, and judged cases against the interest of the government. One example was the deportation order of 1942...

That case goes back quite a long time, though. Would you say that our institutions – including the judiciary – are still as robust and autonomous today, as they were in those far-off days?

I think [the judiciary] is probably the last bastion of protection which the country feels it still has. I’m not very impressed by criticism of persons appointed to the bench because of earlier links to a political party. I think that, depending on the person, some of the judges and magistrates will rise to the occasion. I think they are already doing so. But of course, you cannot generalise. I have reservations about certain issues: like magistrates being picked up dead drunk in Paceville... or keeping the Caruana Galizia family waiting for hours. All this is disturbing. But I think it’s unfair to tar them all with the same brush. On the whole, the judiciary has a history of rising to the occasion - especially when serious crimes occur – and also on independence and impartiality.