Killing Nicholas Azzopardi after his death

He spent the last summer of his life working hard with his son diagnosed with autism to help improve his behaviour.

Nicholas Azzopardi is not being left to rest in peace in his grave in the Naxxar cemetery where he was buried four years ago. Apart from being killed by a report that he might have possibly abused his daughter, he is now being persecuted in his grave and described as a cruel and insensitive father. Yet he spent the last summer of his life working hard with his son diagnosed with autism to help improve his behaviour.

Nicholas Azzopardi’s wife Claudette last Sunday accused her late husband unfairly in The Sunday Times of Malta that Nicholas never seemed interested in their son who suffers from autism.

In the summer of 2007, after feeling very upset that his wife was in denial about their son and did not do anything to get the professional help he needed, Nicholas got down to buying a small pool, a chute, a swing and a see-saw for his son so that he would have an enjoyable environment in which to play. He also set up a timetable for him on when to eat and when to go out to help him structure his daily routine, which is essential for persons with autism.

After four months of this commitment the boy’s condition improved a lot. A professional report dated 3 January 2008 states: “We have seen a significant improvement from the days he started to attend the playschool as he shows to have become more communicative especially with adults and does not fall or bang himself into things as often while walking or running as he used to do.”

The report shows how Nicholas’ work with his son in summer paid off: “Throughout most of the summer months the boy had to be stopped from coming to our centre due to excessive and severe biting, however, when he returned at the end of the summer period he showed to have overcome the problem as since his return he has only bitten a few times.”

On 3 April 2008, five days before his mother and sister in law – Antonia and Alison Patignot – reported him to the police for sexually abusing his daughter, Nicholas had filed a report against her for beating their nearly three-year-old autistic child.

Nicholas had taken their child to the Paola Health Centre at 5.45pm and the doctor on duty certified that the child had a bump on his head, a bruise on his nose, scratches on his chin and another yellowish bruise on his back. He classified the injuries as slight “unless there were complications”.

The day before, the court had given custody of the two children of Nicholas and his wife to his parents as she was not deemed fit to look after them. During the hearings on who was to be given custody of the children, no one – including the relatives of Nicholas’ wife, the police or social workers – came forward to say that Nicholas should not be given custody of the children because he had sexually abused his daughter.

On 26 December 2007 Nicholas had already written a letter to the Commissioner for Children asking for help with the children as he said they were abandoned by his wife. He told her that his daughter was living with his parents as she did not want to live with her mother and was terrified of her brother who was being very aggressive with her.

Nicholas also said that his wife was in denial about their autistic child and did want any help from Appogg, the Eden Foundation and Ir-Razzett tal-Hbiberija.

Nicholas died four years ago after 13 days of fighting for his life after he was taken to Mater Dei Hospital suffering from grievous injuries on 9 April 2008 while in police custody.

One police officer said he got injured after he hurt a policeman and jumped out of a window. Other police officers said he ran away and jumped off the bastion behind the Police Headquarters.

When he regained consciousness on 19 April 2008 Nicholas told his family and friends that he had been beaten up by two policemen in blue without a number. The following day he said that he was then pushed over the bastions.

Nicholas said that he would recognise his aggressors. But neither the inquiring magistrate Antonio Vella nor Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar – in charge of the police’s internal inquiry – organised an identification parade so that Nicholas could identify them.

The two official inquiries held so far on this case have exonerated the police of any wrongdoing. Nicholas’ wife Claudette says she accepts the conclusions of these two inquiries. But Nicholas’ family wants an independent inquiry as they believe that the real truth about Nicholas’ death has yet to emerge.

 The author is shadow minister of education.