In court, it pays to be Maltese

It helps so much that Maltese people facing the same (or even far more serious) charges as foreigners tend to be given sentences anywhere up to four times less severe, and handed down fines which are about 90% less onerous. 

Sadly, not Maltese: Daniel Holmes
Sadly, not Maltese: Daniel Holmes

Small word of advice to anyone facing criminal charges in Malta: it helps to be Maltese. 

In fact, it helps so much that Maltese people facing the same (or even far more serious) charges as foreigners tend to be given sentences anywhere up to four times less severe, and handed down fines which are about 90% less onerous. 

Consider the case of Louis Lia, a 45-year-old man from Bormla, who was earlier this week  sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and a fine of €3,000… for cultivating eight cannabis plants under circumstances which indicated that they were not for personal use.

The man in question had five prior drug-related convictions, and the law-courts rejected his plea that the cannabis in question – enough to produce 150 joints, we were told – was intended to service his own, self-avowed drug habit. This effectively means that Lia was found guilty of cultivation with the intention to traffic: a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 25 years. 

Naturally, I don’t begrudge him the leniency he was shown by the Maltese courts. After all, this is cannabis we are talking about here: and there is mounting global consensus that the drug in question is far less harmful than (perfectly legal) alcohol, and may even have beneficial therapeutic qualities to boot. 

There is, in brief, no reason under the sun why this particular plant should even be illegal in the first place… so any fine and/or jail-time for such a trivial offence can only be regarded as a monumental injustice in its own right.

All things considered, then, I am glad that the Maltese law courts proved so reasonable in this particular case. But the question must be asked all the same.

Why only in this particular case… when the same law-courts have been so monstrously draconian in other, analogous cases involving foreigners?

Consider, for instance, what might have happened to Mr Lia had he been unfortunate enough not to be blessed with a Maltese passport, and all the perks that evidently go with it. What if he were a foreigner like, say, Daniel Holmes… still languishing forgotten in prison, serving an 11-year sentence over cultivation of a measly two cannabis plants in 2007?

Well, the question sort of answers itself, really. Had Lia been from Bangor instead of Bormla – or any other part of the world, for that matter – he would have had every reason to expect not only four times the prison sentence (12 years for foreigners, three for Maltese)… but also a fine of exactly 10 times the amount. 

Holmes was asked to pay €30,000 … even though he was found guilty of growing only one-fourth the amount of illegal plants that resulted in a €3,000 fine for the corresponding Maltese suspect. 

Discrepancies like this are simply too overwhelming to even pretend to ignore any longer. Some form of justification ought to be forthcoming… otherwise, we may as well throw the entire concept of Maltese justice right out of the window. 

So why was a Maltese man let off slightly… when others of different nationalities have had not just the book, but the whole bookcase and even the entire library thrown at them for roughly the same crime?  Oh, and before I forget… this is not exactly a one-off discrepancy, either. There have been plenty of other instances where Maltese suspects were treated to spectacularly different forms of ‘justice’ compared to foreigners caught up in similar scenarios. 

Last year, Christopher Mifsud, 29 from Hamrun, was charged with possession of 400 grams of cannabis and some €4,500 in cash. He was found guilty of possession in circumstances denoting ‘it was not for his exclusive use’ (in other words, trafficking… just like Holmes) and sentenced to 16 months’ jail. 

Just 10 days earlier, Sean Farrugia, 25 from Birkirkara, was convicted of possession of 140 grams of cannabis, and got 21 months. 

All these conflicting sentences were handed down by a Maltese justice system that is supposedly compelled to apply the law equally in all cases, regardless of colour, race, creed, sex, or nationality. Personally, I think it is not unreasonable to ask why our country very clearly fails on this all-important score. 

And a serious question it is, too. What’s at stake here is after all the credibility of the Maltese criminal justice system as a whole; and bearing in mind that the same Maltese criminal justice system has already been found guilty in the past, specifically of accepting bribes to reduce sentences for Maltese drug traffickers… discrepancies like this do not exactly boost confidence in the even-handedness of Maltese justice, now do they?

Even if we rule out the possibility of corruption – and sadly, that is one thing we simply can’t do… given that there is a history of drug-related bribery at the law-courts – the only other plausible answer is prejudice. In Malta’s justice system, there is one set of laws for foreigners, and another, altogether more lenient set of laws for locals. No other way to describe it, really.

But hey, let’s not be too hasty. Let’s do what the Maltese law-courts evidently did not do when dealing with Daniel Holmes. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

One possible doubt concerns legal amendments that came into force last January, and which supposedly ‘decriminalised’ cannabis consumption and cultivation of up to one plant. Well, sadly for this particular comparison, the new laws do not actually apply to the latest case. 

Our friend from Bormla was around seven plants over the limit of what is now a de-penalised offence. Effectively, this means that the legal regime under which he was charged and convicted remains identical to the one in force when Daniel Holmes was served with an exponentially greater sentence, for no apparent reason.

There is, however, a difference between the two scenarios. Holmes’s case was heard before the upper courts, where the maximum sentence (both jail-time and fine) is considerably higher than anything the magistrates’ court can choose to hand down.

But this only raises another discrepancy. Why was the Maltese case – which involved four times the amount of illegal drugs – sent to be heard before the lower courts, while Holmes’s case was presented before a judge?

It is a question to be put to the Attorney General, who has full discretion to simply decide such matters on a case-by-case basis. In Holmes’ case, Malta’s AG considered the cultivation of two plants to be serious enough an offence to warrant the attention of the superior courts. When it came to a Maltese man charged with cultivation of eight cannabis plants, the same AG unaccountably chose the lower courts, where sentences are far more lenient.

On what legal basis were these conflicting decisions taken? None, that I can see. Naturally it is up to the AG to explain his actions to the public – as he would have to, if he were operating within a serious criminal jurisdiction, instead of the shambolic mess otherwise known as the Malta law courts. 

But to date, no explanation has been forthcoming. And this leaves us with only one possible conclusion: Malta’s justice system discriminated against Daniel Holmes – who, incidentally, had no prior drug-related conviction – just as it routinely discriminates against all foreigners, while positively discriminating in favour of Maltese suspects.

There are a number of words to describe this state of affairs. But ‘justice’ very clearly isn’t one of them.