Will Azzopardis get access to the Vella magisterial inquiry?

The Azzopardi family feels that the magisterial inquiry was a cover up to exonerate the police.

Nicholas Azzopardi, seen here in his last recorded message on his deathbed, remains the subject of an as yet unpublished inquiry.
Nicholas Azzopardi, seen here in his last recorded message on his deathbed, remains the subject of an as yet unpublished inquiry.

On 18 September 2012, Magistrate Anthony Vella closed the inquiry into the death of Nicholas Azzopardi after Commissioner of Police John Rizzo asked the Attorney General to re-open the magisterial inquiry last March. On 22 September 2012, the family of Nicholas Azzopardi wrote to the Attorney General requesting to see the inquest by Magistrate Vella and make a copy of it available to them.

The Police Commissioner had asked the Attorney General to reopen the 2008 magisterial inquiry into the death of Nicholas Azzopardi last March, after Sergeant Adrian Lia had resigned from the police force after it transpired that between 2009 and 2011 he carried out 10 thefts of money amounting to €30,000. This money was deposited at police headquarters and had been seized by the police in operations against illegal betting and gambling.

Nicholas Azzopardi had died in 2008 after he was seriously injured at police headquarters while he was under the responsibility of Sergeant Adrian Lia. Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar had defended Lia strongly when the incident took place and said that he would want Lia in his section if there were moves to transfer him to another section because of the Azzopardi death.

The Azzopardi family has never been able to see the full report of the inquest by Magistrate Vella. On 20 August 2008, Azzopardi sent a written request to the Attorney General to have access to the Vella inquiry. On 21 August 2008 the Azzopardi family is denied access by the Attorney General but is asked to forward its demands to the magistrate Vella himself.

The family was eventually allowed to view limited sections of the inquiry but most documents - such as Nicholas's hospital records - were sealed and countersigned on the envelopes by the Magistrate himself.

The Azzopardi family feels that the magisterial inquiry was a cover up to exonerate the police. Legal experts also feel that Vella's magisterial inquiry was seriously flawed.

After spending 10 days fighting for his life at Mater Dei Hospital where he was taken following an incident in which - according to the police - Azzopardi ran away and flung himself off the bastion behind Police Headquarters, Nicholas Azzopardi regained consciousness. He told relatives and a number of friends: "Dad, when I entered they took my daughter. Then two policemen - without a number - accompanied me. They started offending me and beating me up. I could not hold them and pushed one of them in self defence, hurting him. Immediately I received side kicks to my chest and started spitting blood. I would be able to recognise them if I see them again."

Magistrate Antonio Vella never ordered an identification parade, which would have given Nicholas Azzopardi the opportunity to identify the officers who had beaten him up and so he took whatever he knew to his grave.

Another serious flaw is that Magistrate Vella worked too closely with Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar, who was tasked with holding an internal inquiry into how the police behaved with Nicholas Azzopardi when he was arrested. The version of the police officers implicated in the case was accepted uncritically, while Azzopardi and his family were treated with hostility. Even a Council of Europe Report (May 2008) says this and expresses concern about the integrity of the investigations.

The Council of Europe report raises the issue of 'the police investigating the police' and says that for an investigation into possible ill-treatment to be effective, 'it is essential that the persons responsible for carrying it out be independent from those implicated in the events'. In Nicholas Azzopardi's case... the magistrate in charge was exercising close and effective supervision of the police officers responsible for the operational conduct of the investigation."

Another serious flaw identified in the Magisterial Inquiry is that Vella did not give due weight to what Azzopardi had to say just before he died, when usually such statements ('articolo mortis') are considered indispensable to establish what happened.

Evarist Bartolo is shadow minister for education

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