Time to investigate links between police and politics

Looks like it is now customary for the forces of law and order to chip into electoral campaigns every now and again. And Cyrus Engerer’s criminal conviction this week seems in fact to carry on a long and illustrious tradition of court sentences (and, in other cases, arrest warrants) sprung upon candidates within weeks or days of polling day.

True, it could be a coincidence that the timing of such incidents is always somehow congenial to the purposes of one political party or another. But the sheer consistency with which such cases now occur points towards a regular, almost predictable pattern of behaviour… a pattern whereby Malta’s entire law enforcement machinery seems to only ever spring into action when there are a political implications to any given case.
Right: before moving onto the broader implications, let us get the obvious out of the way. Engerer has been convicted of a serious crime (I won’t go into the specific details for the sake of brevity, but they were all over the press this week). From this perspective he had no choice but to resign, as he did last Thursday.

Had he refused to bow out of the race, it would have been the equivalent of fielding a wounded gazelle among lions and cheetahs on the Serengeti. His position was so obviously untenable that his opponents would have almost literally ripped him – and the party which accepted him as a candidate – to pieces.

They would have been quite right, too. In fact the remarkable thing in all this is not so much that Engerer resigned, but that he even contested the election in the first place. He was after all facing criminal charges in court – in other countries that fact alone would have warranted resignation, regardless of the guilty verdict – and he knew that if he lost, the consequences would have been disastrous for himself and for the PL. He could therefore have spared his party all its embarrassment this week, by quietly bowing out long before the proverbial excrement finally hit the fan.

As things stand, the most that can be said for Engerer is that he at least understood that his position was untenable, and threw in the towel where others might have tried to cling on regardless. Exactly how this makes him a ‘soldier of steel’ (not stainless steel, I would imagine) in the eyes of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is at best a mystery.

I wasn’t yet born in the days when the phrase first entered the public subconscious – nor, for that matter, was Joseph – but even I know that Mintoff’s celebrated ‘suldati tal-azzar’ was a reference to those heretics who defied a Church injunction against voting Labour in the 1962 election.

The original expression was therefore used to denote courage and integrity in the face of injustice… not to mention fierce (ironically, almost religious) loyalty to the Mintoffian cause. It sits rather uneasily in its new 21st century context, where it is used to describe a man ultimately found guilty of rather shabby and disreputable behaviour... and placing his own party in an awkward, embarrassing and above all avoidable position in the process.

Evidently, the quality of steel has been downgraded since 1962. ‘Soldier of rusty corrugated iron’ may not have quite the same oomph to it… but it would certainly have been more appropriate in this case.

But what makes the whole affair especially interesting is the timeline of events. Cyrus Engerer claims the entire case against him was an act of political vindictiveness prompted by his own defection from PN to Labour in 2011. If true, this hypothesis would hardly justify the crime for which he was convicted this week, nor lessen the political implications of the sentence. Nor would it justify the Labour leader’s extraordinary (and entirely inappropriate) defence of his beleaguered candidate, who has now been elevated to the unlikely rank of hero and political martyr.

But (always if true) it would tell us a heck of a lot about how the forces of law and order actually operate in this country… in particular, how they sometimes seem to think of themselves as an extension of the national political machine. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Engerer’s theory is, in fact, true.

Cyrus Engerer was originally reported to the police in January 2010. The police concluded its investigation in March 2011: yet Engerer was arrested only on July 25 2011… a full four months after the police already had in hand all the evidence they needed to prosecute, and only 10 days after announcing his resignation from the Nationalist Party and joining Labour.

Meanwhile a second ‘political arrest’ concerned his father Chris, also in July 2011. Apart from the obvious family ties, what connects these two arrests is the timing in relation to Cyrus Engerer’s decision – on July 15 2011, remember? – to defect to Labour.

Exactly 10 days later, Cyrus’s father was under arrest for smoking pot in a Sliema bar, and Cyrus himself was served with a warrant over a complaint filed a year and a half earlier. Coincidence, I hear you ask? Well, indications at the time seemed to suggest otherwise. This is from a news report dated October 13 2011: “An inquiry headed by Judge Albert Manche’ has questioned how the police took months to investigate Cyrus Engerer over alleged computer misuse and distribution of pornography but then filed charges just 10 days after Engerer, the Deputy Mayor of Sliema, switched from the PN to the PL…”

The same inquiry observed how the Cyber Crimes Unit had concluded its investigation in March, yet showed no inclination to arrest Engerer until mid-July… when the previously dormant police force suddenly sprang into action and promptly made up for all the time it had previously wasted.

In case there was any doubt as to the inquiry’s conclusions, Judge Manche’ even took the trouble to spell them out for us: “Inevitably, one has to conclude that the police dragged their feet before July 15, 2011 and hurried in their proceedings against Cyrus Engerer afterwards, and that Cyrus Engerer’s resignation was the reason why the police hurried in their filing of the charges after so much delay.”

I need hardly add that this constitutes a grave indictment of the police force: this time coming from a magistrate heading an official inquiry. Yet I am unaware that it had any repercussions at the time. No heads rolled, no resignations were demanded. It is as though we have all become subconsciously inured to a state of affairs whereby the police interpret and apply the law depending on the purely political allegiance of any given suspect. Indeed, we would have been surprised had the inquiry concluded otherwise.

Meanwhile, if this is beginning to sound familiar it’s because we’ve all been here before. On the eve of the 2008 election, AD chairman Harry Vassallo similarly found himself served with an arrest warrant over an unpaid VAT bill dating back to the 1990s. The warrant could have been served at any point over the preceding decade. But no: the police chose to wait until three days before an election before placing a candidate and party leader under arrest.
Even at the time, defenders of the status quo – i.e., the Gonzi administration – conceded that Vassallo’s arrest had been politically motivated. They ascribed it to a rogue element in the police force which had an interest in undermining the government’s democratic credentials… by projecting the image of a police state in which government’s opponents were routinely arrested.

If this were the case, it would perhaps put the government of the day in the clear of any direct involvement. But it does nothing to absolve the police of maladministration, or bolster public confidence in law enforcement. On the contrary, this theory merely confirms what many of us have long suspected: that the police seem to have a habit of involving themselves in political matters for all the wrong reasons.

Whether the political parties themselves are in any way involved is really quite irrelevant. If the police abuse their powers for political purposes, the damage to the force’s reputation (not to mention the disservice to justice) will have been done, regardless of the complicity or otherwise of other branches of the state.

But back to the arrest of Chris Engerer. In this case, the political motive was so utterly blatant that the former Police Commissioner John Rizzo felt compelled to address a rare press conference to defend his force from criticism. He felt ‘hurt’, he told us, by allegations that the police had acted out of anything but conscientious duty and respect for the laws of the country.

As far as I know, Rizzo stopped short of explaining exactly why any of us should remotely give a toss about his own personal feelings, when what we actually wanted to hear was a convincing assurance that the police had not acted out of political vindictiveness and spite. Yet Rizzo’s press conference did not exculpate the police force of playing party politics. He did not address the widespread suspicion that the police had previously ignored Chris Engerer’s transgressions… but only for as long as his son served as a deputy mayor on the Nationalist ticket.

In both cases, there was a clear and sudden change in attitude on the police’s part… every bit as clear and sudden as Cyrus Engerer’s simultaneous change of political allegiance. I would almost demand an explanation, were the explanation not already so blatantly staring us all in the face.

These facts strongly suggest that there are elements within the police force which do perceive their job as an extension of their preferred political party’s strategy group, and enact their remit accordingly. And apart from making an open mockery of the separation of powers, with serious consequences for democracy – how can a police force be trusted, if it is not independent of party politics? – there are repercussions on the administration of justice as a whole.

Faced with the conclusions of the Manche’ inquiry, one has to also wonder whether Cyrus Engerer would have been arrested at all, had he not actually jumped political ship when he did (and in a sense cut himself off from the ‘protection’ of the PN). Would the matter even have come to trial? Or would a serious crime have been ignored (as it was studiously ignored before July 15 2011) because it involved a political personality of one party but not the other?

Same goes for Chris Engerer’s drug bust. Would the police have continued turning a blind eye to that particular situation indefinitely, had his son not taken an unrelated political decision that set political alarm bells ringing in the Floriana depot?
We will probably never know, but what we do know about these and other cases is more than enough to warrant a proper, thorough independent investigation of the police and its apparent links with political parties. After all, common citizens find themselves under investigation for far less.

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