Begging your pardon (again)...

This alone should be reason enough to remove the decision-making power from the Prime Minister’s hands, once and for all

Well, it seems that Prime Minister Robert Abela is in a pickle, and no mistake.

And at a glance, it looks a lot like the one his immediate predecessor found himself facing in November 2019: when Joseph Muscat similarly had to decide on a Presidential pardon for one of the suspects in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case… knowing full well that the resulting information would surely be enough to bring his own government down (as, in fact, it did).

Only in Abela’s case, the dilemma is infinitely more insidious. For in 2019, the pardon offered to Melvin Theuma led directly to the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, as the suspected prime mover behind the Daphne murder conspiracy. And while this was enough to forge a clear link with Muscat’s own government – given the extensive network that we now know existed between Fenech, and Muscat’s right-hand man Keith Schembri (among others) – well, that’s more or less as far as the revelations went, at the time.

Closing an eye at subsequent claims that both Schembri and former minister Chris Cardona may have also played a part in the murder plot… in 2019, the incriminating revelations were limited only to Yorgen Fenech’s involvement; and – close though he certainly was to the seat of power – Fenech himself was not part of Muscat’s government.

Yet that revelation, alone, was still enough to bring Muscat’s career as Prime Minister to a crashing end.

Today, on the other hand, Abela is once again faced with the choice of recommending a Presidential pardon… only this time, in exchange for testimony that the murder itself had been commissioned by, among others, ‘a former Labour minister’… and, separately, that another ‘sitting Cabinet minister’ (i.e., one of Abela’s own colleagues) was also involved in another violent crime.

It is, in a sense, of a case of one admission being ‘bought’ by another: two of the executioners in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder are now willing to admit to their own guilt…  as long as the Labour government admits to the involvement of one (possibly more) of its members in the same crime.

Effectively, then, Robert Abela is being asked to place his own party’s head on the block.  And it may even end up being his own head, too… for let’s face it: even if the crime itself occurred before Abela’s stint as Prime Minister, a revelation of such magnitude is also likely to just wipe out everything in its path: including not just Abela’s credibility, but that of the Labour Party as a whole.

For one thing, it would instantly call into question everything that Abela himself has ever said and done about the same murder… and around the first thing that would pop up is his ill-fated remark, around three weeks ago, that ‘no politicians, past or present’ had been named in connection with the case.

That didn’t exactly age very well, did it? Even today – i.e., before any pardon has been given – it has already been contradicted by four of the implicated suspects: Theuma, Muscat, and now the Degiorgio brothers.

But if the latest allegations do ever cross that all-important threshold, and evolve from ‘speculation’ into ‘evidence presented in court’… something tells me that those words will not just return to haunt Robert Abela as an ‘embarrassment’.  No, they will almost certainly be interpreted – not just by his local political adversaries, but also by the foreign press… the European Parliament… the Council of Europe… the Pangalactic Federation… you name it… – as ‘evidence’ of some kind of government cover-up of its own criminal actions.

I need hardly add that the same suspicions would also arise if Robert Abela took ‘Option B’ instead: and refused to recommend the pardon in this particular case.

In that event, the Prime Minister would have to explain why he chose to grant one pardon, in February this year, to a suspect who limited his identification of culprits only to non-politicians… only to later deny another pardon – under almost identical circumstances – to suspects who were also willing to directly implicate ‘a former Labour minister’.

It would, alas, look suspicious by its very nature… let alone when you also factor in that – unlike Vince Muscat – the information offered by the Degiorgios comes from people who had direct, first-hand knowledge of the conspiracy to murder Daphne Caruana Galizia. (In other words: no more ‘hearsay’ excuses).

So as far as I can see – and provided there isn’t an ‘Option C’ that is invisible to me, right now – it is certainly a choice of evils for Robert Abela.

Either way, he loses: and in a sense this is inevitable, given that he also has a somewhat glaring conflict of interest in this case. Not only is he a colleague of at least one of the newly-indicated suspects… but his own political survival, no less, now more or less hinges on the outcome of this decision.

But this only brings us to the most utterly bizarre aspect of this entire situation… i.e., the fact that the Prime Minister is even faced with this Hobson’s Choice at all.

In this respect, there is nothing at all ‘unprecedented’ about Abela’s situation. He is certainly not the first Prime Minister accused of having a ‘conflict of interest’, when it comes to deciding on Presidential pardons. The same criticism was levelled at Joseph Muscat last year… and even at Eddie Fenech Adami, over his handling of the Zeppi l-Hafi case way back in the early 1990s.

The circumstances may not, admittedly, have been identical. (In Fenech Adami’s case, for instance, the conflict arose because the victim of the crime happened to be his own personal assistant.) Nonetheless, all those cases – and there were others – illustrate roughly the same thing: you cannot exactly ‘avoid’ conflicts of interest in such matters… for the simple reason that it should NOT be the Prime Minister to take such decisions in the first place.

Nor should we even be talking, strictly speaking, about a ‘Presidential pardon’ at all. It is, quite frankly, not the appropriate legal tool to be used in this, or any other analogous case.

In fact, the only reason we keep resorting to ‘pardons’ – when what is actually needed is ‘immunity from prosecution, in exchange for State evidence’ – is because our criminal justice system simply lacks any alternative administrative tool, designed specifically to meet the current situation’s requirements.

Ideally, it should be the State prosecutor’s role – not the Prime Minister’s – to ‘recommend’ the granting of immunity from prosecution; and if the prime minister comes into it at all, it would be in the same capacity as the President of the Republic, when it comes to pardons: i.e., to simply rubber-stamp a decision taken independently by the proper, relevant authority.

And there is a pretty obvious reason why this distinction is, in fact, made in other countries. The office of the Prime Minister (or equivalent thereof) is, by definition, a ‘political’ role; as such, its decisions are inevitably going to be governed by political considerations (and nowhere is this more evident than in Abela’s current predicament).

A State prosecutor, on the other hand, is not only better-positioned to understand the legal and judicial implications of the request itself; he or she is also (ideally, at least) at a judicious arm’s length from any such external influences.

And what do you know? This takes us right back to the same old ‘rule-of-law issues’, for which our country has been hauled over the coals so much in recent years.  You know: ‘the separation of powers’, and all that…

Meanwhile, on another level entirely, there are also many valid reasons for Robert Abela to refuse recommending a pardon, in this particular case: and not all of them are ‘political’.

Among those publicly arguing against a pardon for the Degiorgios is none other than the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation (which, given the name, presumably speaks on behalf of the Caruana Galizia family). In any case, they are clearly motivated by ‘justice’ for the murder victim; and it is highly debatable whether justice can be said to have been served… unless all those involved in that barbaric crime are made to pay for their actions in full.

This alone should be reason enough to remove the decision-making power from the Prime Minister’s hands, once and for all. For the way the cookie has now crumbled: even if Robert Abela does take what the Caruana Galizias themselves consider to be the right decision… it will still somehow come across as a decision taken for all the wrong, ‘political’ reasons.

From that perspective, it is not just Robert Abela himself who stands to lose out on all fronts… it is the rest of us, too. (Or at least, those among us who really do want justice to be served: in this, and in all cases). And all because of a single, glaring flaw in our criminal justice system, that has been painfully visible for literally decades… yet which we somehow never quite got round to fixing…