‘Impunity’ extends to crimes against women, too…

It seems to have taken Sunday’s murder, to finally alert people to the fact that the maximum penalty for ‘rape’, in Malta’s criminal justice system, is only nine years

Ok: it’s not as though I was expecting 2022 to actually live up to all those ‘Happy New Year’ wishes, or anything like that. But then again… bloody hell. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to start on such an unspeakably awful note, either…

If you think I’m referring only to the shocking murder of Paulina Dembska last Sunday… and all the grisly details that have since emerged… well, you’d be perfectly right. Yes, I was referring to all that, as it happens; but also, to a little more.   

To be perfectly honest, it’s not all that easy to articulate. But for some reason, this particular murder affected me a lot more deeply than usual (if, that is, we can even use the word ‘usual’ to describe this sort of thing).

But I’m sure you know what I mean. Let’s face it: we all watch the news, and we all digest the fact that terrible, unthinkable crimes are committed on a daily basis, somewhere around the world. Take, for instance, the case of (yet another) school shooting in the United States. It’s the sort of thing that certainly leaves you ‘appalled’ and ‘aghast’, yes… but (in my case, at any rate) it is too remote to ever really hit you directly in the guts.

For some reason, however, I found that this particular murder did have that effect.  And it’s not just because of an entirely understandable – and, I would like to think, widely shared – sense of ordinary human compassion: the fact that I got a small lump in my throat, just by looking at that poor girl’s photo online (though I never knew her at all – or even that she existed - until literally just yesterday)… 

… no, it’s also because of precisely WHERE all this happened: in Independence Gardens, Sliema, no less; not just any old random corner of the hometown I was born and raised in myself (and over which, in spite of everything, I still feel a certain sense of ‘territoriality’)… 

But the exact same spot where so much of my own childhood had once unfolded: where – long before those ‘Gardens’ actually existed – I used to take my dog (or, as others might have seen it, ‘my dog used to take me’) for a walk; where I once broke my wrist, after falling out of a tree… where I tried (and failed) to ride a bicycle, for the first time in my life… where…

Well, I reckon you can see where all this is heading. Not to get all mushy on you, anything – far too late for that anyway – but this also suggests that Paulina Dembska’s brutal rape and murder somehow got itself woven into the tapestry of my own life, too. It took place against a backdrop that I still ‘call home’; and which I still associate with all the innocence, and (much more pertinently) ‘safety’ of early childhood… 

From that perspective, it is almost as though this ghastly crime had been committed… right here, in my own backyard. And while I freely admit that it’s a pretty irrational reaction, all things considered (but then again, whose wasn’t?) there is nonetheless a small part of it that is undeniably ‘real’.

So real, in fact, I have detected much the same sensation is all sorts of other reactions, too. And some people might even have gone a little overboard expressing it, at times. 

It is, after all, one thing to suggest – as feminist groups are now doing – that Dembska’s murder is ‘a direct result of the culture of hatred towards women that we have allowed to foster’. (Personally – and for reasons I’ll come to in a sec – I can’t see how anyone can even argue with that, myself… though that hasn’t exactly stopped everybody from trying, has it?)

But to extend that line of reasoning to some kind of collective ‘failure’ on the part of Maltese society as a whole – or, even more specifically, of the National [Mental, in this case] Health Services, for having failed to somehow ‘prevent’ this sort of thing from even happening to begin with… 

I don’t know: that’s pushing the blame game just a little too far, for my own liking.

Nonetheless, even the most extreme (and illogical) of those reactions, still depart from the an entirely rational premise. For when something horrible does happen ‘in your own house’… you can’t help but also ask yourself whether maybe – just maybe – the ‘house’ itself might have had something to do with it. 

Much as I hate to drag in other, unrelated murders to this equation: that is precisely how the country had reacted to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, back in October 2017. 

Admittedly, it is probably around the only angle from which these two crimes may be even remotely compared… but on that occasion, not only did we collectively ask ourselves whether – or to what extent – the Maltese State had ‘contributed’ to an atmosphere which made such murders possible … but we even went a step further, and set up a Public Commission to try and come up with answers (with results that are now history, etc.)

Without even delving into whether this latest case should likewise be subject to a full-blown public enquiry, or not…  already you can see that the fundamental question being asked is (almost) exactly the same, in both scenarios. 

Was Paulina Dembska’s murder, last Sunday, also the culmination of an entire ‘culture of misogyny’ we have nurtured in this country: not quite as deliberately, perhaps, as Joseph Muscat’s ‘octopus of corruption’… but no less pervasively (arguably even more so, in fact: having been embedded, over generations, into a decidedly ‘patriarchal’ legal and judicial system)?

I think it’s a fair question, myself. Especially considering how, in the mere two days since Dembska’s death, numerous young women have emerged to report their own previous experiences – mostly involving online sexual harassment – with the same alleged perpetrator. 

There have even been individual press reports, claiming that some of those earlier victims had reported Abner Aquilina to the police… with no visible results yet, in so far as investigations or prosecutions are concerned. 

To be fair, there has been no actual confirmation of this detail, to date…  but then again, it is altogether too easy to confirm the existence of a gaping institutional lacuna – not just limited to the police, either – specifically when it comes to enforcing laws to protect women.

I am reluctant to bring up a case which involves a relative of mine: but four years have gone by since a number of young women were targeted by explicit death threats, after participating in a pro-choice rally on Women’s Day…. and to the best of my knowledge, no action was ever taken in any of those cases, either (no, not even against the ‘20-something-year-old man from Qrendi’, who publicly fantasized about ‘shooting them in the head, one by one, execution-style’…)

… and this, I suppose, is another of the reasons why gender-based crime remains so woefully under-reported in in this country. Earlier this year, a survey revealed that a staggering ‘one out of three’ women report experiencing sexual harassment and/or violence, at least once in their lives… yet less than 15% of those cases are ever reported to the police. 

Hmm, I wonder why? Could it be, perhaps, because the police very often do dismiss – or at least, ‘miminise’ – such reports, even on the rare occasion they are actually filed? 

In one much-publicised 2020 domestic violence trial, for instance, the hapless victim even testified that: “The Inspector said that [my husband] needs to hurt me badly before he’s going to take action: ‘Unless he hurts you badly, don’t come to make a report.’”

And that’s before we even take a look at some of the specific laws (all written by male legislators, of course) that the police are supposed to be enforcing in the first place. For instance: it seems to have taken Sunday’s murder, to finally alert people to the fact that the maximum penalty for ‘rape’, in Malta’s criminal justice system, is only… wait for it…  nine years.

Applied to Abner Aquilina’s case - and imagining, for a moment, that he limited himself to ‘merely’ raping his victim (instead of also throttling the life out of her afterwards) - the implication is that, if convicted, he would be out of jail before his 30th birthday…

… and that’s assuming that: a) he’ll actually be convicted, when the time comes (and sorry, folks: but that’s not our call to make), and; b) that he’ll be given the maximum sentence, if that happens.

Naturally, we shall have no option but to simply wait and see. But we have already witnessed countless other analogous crimes – including femicides – where the eventual sentence fell far short of the maximum allowed at law. 

Suffice it to say that people have served longer prison sentences for growing cannabis plants in this country, than for raping and/or murdering women. And that, too, constitutes a ‘culture of impunity’… of the kind that might even prompt a young (and apparently deranged) man such as Abner Aquilina to think that - as he himself put it, in one of his many disturbing tweets - ‘ what’s the worst that can possibly happen’?

Sadly, I think we already have an answer to that: what happened to Paulina Dembska last Sunday. That, I fear, is around the ‘worst that can possibly happen’: except that… well, it already happened. Right here, in our own backyard…