Who investigates the investigators?

My concern here is not with whether the allegations are true or not... but rather, with how they were handled by the authorities

It’s a question that seems to keep cropping up in this country, and I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard a convincing answer. 

But let’s take a step back and ask an even more basic question. What is the normal procedure in this country for investigating any kind of alleged wrongdoing: be it corruption, malfeasance, petty theft, organised crime, and so on and so forth? What are the institutions involved, and how do they actually function?

Some people out there might assume that the main responsibility for investigating criminal offences falls to the Malta Police Force. And in most instances they would be correct. But then, what about those cases where it is the Police Force itself (or any single one of its members) that is implicated in an alleged crime? What happens then?

Technically, the job would fall to something called the ‘Internal Affairs Unit’, composed of three police officers who have an office in the Floriana Police Depot. And there are other institutions that would automatically come into play. For instance: it is standard practice for the Justice Ministry to appoint a magisterial inquiry… not just for allegations of criminal behaviour, but also for accidents, unexplained deaths, missing persons… basically, any event or occurrence that raises questions but no answers. 

But again, the same proviso applies. What happens when the unanswered questions happen to also involve a sitting magistrate? Could another magistrate be appointed to investigate one of his or her own colleagues? Same goes for judges. All are, broadly speaking, members of the same section of the entire judicial hierarchy… so can the judiciary be expected to investigate itself?

Again, the official answer is no: and there is recent case history to illustrate this, too. When former Chief Justice Noel Arrigo and Judge Patrick Vella were investigated on bribery allegations, the matter was investigated by the police, and a separate inquiry was also conducted by something called the Permanent Commission Against Corruption. (I’ll come back to this in a sec).

With all this in mind: consider the possibility of a corruption allegation that involves: 

a) a magistrate; 

b) an official of the Attorney General’s office, and; 

c) a police inspector. 

What on earth would be the correct procedure for a case like that? A magisterial inquiry clearly falls at the first hurdle. Likewise, the police should not technically investigate one of their own members for the exact same reason. As for the AG’s office, I am unaware it even possesses the executive powers necessary to conduct an investigation of any kind whatsoever. But even if it did, it would plainly have a conflict of interest in that scenario.

So what would actually happen?

Well, this week we all got a brief glimpse of how the machinery of justice actually operates, when it is the same machinery of justice that is under scrutiny. Over the past couple of days two somewhat vague court reports appeared in this newspaper and The Times. Here are the basic details:

“A man who accused a magistrate, an official from the Attorney General’s office and a police inspector with corruption was today charged with making false claims and vilifying them.” [The Times] “Christian Demanuele, 39, a company director from St Paul’s Bay, pleaded not guilty to making the false claims in a letter he sent President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca in March.”

The next two sentences are kind of indicative of the institutional lacuna all this points towards: “The matter reached the police who began investigating the claims the man was making. No details of the case were mentioned in court…”

OK: before proceeding any further, a few necessary disclaimers. I haven’t read the letter in question (it hasn’t been made public), and therefore I don’t know the actual nature of the allegations it contains. For all I know, they could be pure nonsense… the man might be a conman, a liar, or even delusional… and it could even be (as the prosecution insists) a premeditated attempt to discredit public officials who were actually trying to do their job with the utmost seriousness.

But none of this actually matters, because my concern here is not with whether the allegations are true or not… but rather, with how they were handled by the authorities. All the arguments I am about to make stem from this single concern; and would not be in any way affected even if it turns out that the prosecution is entirely correct, and that the man in question is guilty as hell.

Right: now, back to the case. The Times report doesn’t tell us exactly how “the matter reached the police”. Yesterday I called the Office of the President to request an explanation. Efforts to communicate with Communications Co-ordinator Maria Muscat proved entirely futile… though I did eventually get through to Lt Brian Gatt, one of the President’s two aides de camp. Eventually I was informed that the allegations were ‘clearly imaginary’ and that it was ‘not in the interests of justice to sully persons’ reputations unnecessarily’.

Significantly, however, my actual question – e.g., whether the letter had been forwarded to the police for investigation by the Office of the President, even though it implied possible criminal behaviour by a police inspector – remained unanswered.

As things stand, I can only conclude that this is in fact what happened… even though the Office of President is also responsible for the Permanent Commission Against Corruption, which would have provided a far more natural and less obviously contentious alternative to asking the police to effectively investigate itself.

Why? Well, look at this this way. We don’t actually know (because “no details were mentioned in court”, remember?) who the ‘police inspector’ identified in this mysterious letter is. So for all we know, the letter might even have landed on the desk of the same police inspector it attempts to incriminate. Or, if that sounds too far-fetched, one of his (or her) closest buddies within the Force. 

Either way, this would give the investigators a rather glaring motive not to actually investigate the case… not to mention ample opportunity to destroy any potential evidence that might otherwise be uncovered by an independent inquiry.

I’m not saying that’s what happened… but had the matter been investigated by any office or institution that wasn’t actually at the heart of the allegations it contained, at least there wouldn’t be the suspicion that it might have.

But then again, this only raises the question of whether there even is an institution in this country capable of handling an independent investigation into this sort of allegation. As I mentioned earlier, the police has its own Internal Affairs Unit. Yesterday, I called the Depot to ask whether the matter was investigated by this unit. 

Some hours later I got a reply from the police’s media office, which I reproduce in full: “The case was investigated, a person has been charged in Court and the case is sub judice.”

Again, it doesn’t exactly answer the question, does it? But even if, for argument’s sake, we establish that the allegations were indeed subject to an internal inquiry within the police force… the Internal Affairs Unit remains in any case part and parcel of the same institution it is supposed to investigate. Its investigating officers still depend on the same Police Force for their monthly paycheque, for crying out loud. For this reason alone, it cannot be considered an ‘independent investigation’ by any stretch of the imagination. 

I could almost stop there, but there is more – much more – to comment upon in this particular case. Let’s go back to that court session and find out what actually happened, shall we?

This is from the MaltaToday report: “The precise nature of the allegations and the identities of the people against whom they were made remains shrouded in mystery, with the court taking the charges as read and summoning the prosecution and defence lawyers to the bench, where the matter was discussed in hushed tones… No request for bail was made and the accused was remanded in custody.”

Please note: ‘taking the charges as read’. This effectively means that the charges were not read out aloud in court. Yet the accused somehow managed to enter a ‘not guilty’ plea… despite not having heard the formal charges presented against him. And why were these charges not read out, anyway? Could it be because making those charges public would automatically have also made public the names of the magistrate, the AG official and the police inspector whom the defendant accuses of corruption? If so… wouldn’t this also give rise to suspicions that the law courts, the prosecution office and the police are all colluding to defend their own institutions from attack?

Meanwhile, it transpires that the presiding magistrate summoned both prosecution and defence counsel to the bench to discuss the matter ‘in hushed tones’… i.e., out of earshot of at least two court reporters who were present in the hall. 

Again, even if there were perfectly valid reasons to do this… and we weren’t actually given any… what we are talking about here is a case which (rightly or wrongly) implicates the entire judicial system in allegations of corruption... at a time when popular perceptions of the justice system are already at an all-time low, following proven corruption allegations in the past.  

This brings me back to the reply I received earlier from the Office of the President: in particular, the bit about what is and what is not ‘in the interests of justice’. Surely, in a case like this it would have been ‘in the interests of justice’ for the entire judicial system to take pains to ensure that it is 100% transparent every step of the way? 

But no: it actually did the opposite… taking pains to impart the impression that it actually has something to hide (and, judging by the comments that appeared under both articles, that’s the impression many people out there got).

How on earth does any of this serve ‘the interests of justice’? Certainly not in any way that is visible to me…

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