Oh ye of little proof...

What you, me, the PANA committee, or anyone else under the sun thinks is entirely irrelevant... Justice without proof is not justice at all

Somewhere on the Internet there is a Youtube clip designed to illustrate the danger of passing hasty judgments, without being in possession of all the facts. It features a number of different scenarios, in which entirely harmless circumstances get to be monstrously misconstrued by observers who weren’t there from the beginning.

I saw it a while back, and unfortunately my Internet search skills are not up to the task of homing in on one clip among millions, without any case-specific key-words to work with. So I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on my memory for the details: and while these may not be 100% accurate, my recreation of that scenario still conveys the same general message.

We’re in a kitchen. A man is cooking (what looks like) a Bolognese sauce, while his cat is rubbing itself against his legs for attention. As the sauce simmers on the hob, he busies himself chopping up carrots (or whatever) with a great big cleaver. At one point he turns and takes a step away from the kitchen counter... only to trip up on the cat and lose his balance. With his free arm (he is still holding the cleaver) he instinctively reaches out to steady himself; and accidentally knocks the pot full of sauce off the hob onto the floor... splattering the entire kitchen (himself and the cat included) with a rich, red meaty sauce. The startled cat jumps up into the man’s arms with a yowl... but he is still trying to regain footing, and ends up catching the cat by its tail. At that precise moment, someone else walks into the kitchen, to see...

Trouble arises precisely because the EP’s recommendations form part of the context of a criminal investigation - not a political one

Well, you can picture the scene. As I remember it, the clip ends with the horrified expression on the man’s face, as he looks from the swinging cat in one arm, to the cleaver in the other, to what looks like the cat’s entrails all over the walls... to the equally horrified expression on the other person’s face. But it could easily be expanded: the ‘someone else’ might have reacted by rushing to file a police report on the basis of presumed animal cruelty. With this new plot twist, the police would have to investigate the case, and the misapprehension could conceivably take quite some time to clear up. All along, the neighbourhood gossip machine would be in full swing.

If you want to really turn it into a saga, you could extend the scenario by making the cat jump clean out of the window upon being released... never to be seen in that household again (an entirely plausible eventuality, given the scalding it just received). So when the police do turn up for questioning, it becomes impossible to actually verify what happened. No cat to prove that the crime did not take place...

OK, I suppose you could still demonstrate that it was sauce and not blood on the walls... but let’s not ruin a good plot with such trifling considerations. Let’s say the maid had come in the meantime - oblivious to what was going on - and scraped and scrubbed all the evidence away.

The bottom line is that incidents such as the above could easily take on a life of their own. A case like that could even end up in court, and/or get reported in the local paper. I need hardly add that the headline alone – ‘man caught cooking cat in own kitchen’ – could easily end up going viral. Millions of people around the world would instantly judge him guilty of a crime which – seeing as how cats are venerated on the Internet – is regarded as ‘up there with genocide’.

So in the end, an entirely innocent man would go down in history as the most notorious criminal since Jack the Ripper, or the Mosta cat-crucifier: all because of a single, hasty conclusion, drawn from a misreading of all the available evidence.

Not a pretty thought, huh? Well, you can just imagine how much worse it looks when dealing with real scenarios instead of imaginary ones. This week, the PANA committee unveiled the results of its investigation into the many and various money laundering allegations that have plagued this country since 2016. The first of its ‘key recommendations’ is worded as follows:

“Persons perceived to be implicated in serious acts of corruption and money laundering, as a result of Panama Papers revelations and FIAU reports, should not be kept in public office and must be swiftly and formally investigated and brought to justice.”

Please note: ‘perceived’ – not ‘proven’. And such persons should ‘not be kept in public office’... but instead be ‘formally investigated and brought to justice’. In that order...

Hmm. I suppose, if you extend the same reasoning to ALL criminal cases... there would be no need to try anyone for any crime at all. If there is a mere perception of guilt, in any case, the suspect in question should immediately pay the full price he or she would normally have to pay when found guilty... only without being found guilty; and before their case was even heard.

Now: I am well aware that when it comes to Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri (the evident targets of the above recommendation), proof of secret offshore accounts is available aplenty, and has been from day one. Proof of money being laundered through those accounts, however, is something else entirely; and that is where the crime, if any, would have been committed.

Still: we have to distinguish here between political responsibility and criminal culpability. Both Mizzi and Schembri should have resigned immediately, as has been stated countless before (including editorially by this newspaper). No problems with the EP’s recommendation on this particular level. In fact, it would have spared us all this hassle to begin with.

But the trouble arises precisely because the EP’s recommendations form part of the context of a criminal investigation – not a political one. And on the level of criminal justice... sorry, but no. There is still a judicial process to be applied. And in this country (though perhaps not in all EU member states) that involves the presumption of innocence... not the assumption of guilt.

Meanwhile, another part of the same context forces us to extend that logic to cases for which there is no proof at all. I specifically refer to the Egrant allegations here: which, by the way, run along two parallel lines. The first concerns the ownership of the company. The allegation was that Egrant’s UBO is/was the Prime Minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat. The second was that a very specific sum of money was deposited into that account by a member of the Azerbaijani ruling family.

To date, neither of these allegations has been supported by any conclusive evidence. For the former, we were only given a typed transcript of a document that was supposedly kept in a safe in Pilatus Bank. A photo of the original document has been passed onto the inquiring magistrate. As far as I can see, the other copy that was ‘in the cloud’ has stayed there ever since. As for the latter allegation, there has been no evidence at all. No bank records to show that the money had been deposited. It’s like the cat after it jumped out of the window. You can’t prove the crime was committed... but you can’t prove it wasn’t, either.

Stepping into that scenario at the tail-end – as our neighbour did in the imaginary scenario, above – one could come away with all sorts of different perceptions and misinterpretations. It is obvious to me that the PANA committee has chosen the perception that Joseph Muscat is guilty as hell. Its chairman Werner Langen even said so, in no uncertain terms: ‘‘We will insist that you [Muscat] don’t get off scot-free...”

But why stop there? There are other possibilities, you know. It could be argued... indeed, it has been argued... that the Egrant allegations were fabricated by Daphne Caruana Galizia herself – or by the whistleblower, who then deceived the journalist, etc - in order to topple Muscat’s government, at a time when the Opposition party was at too low an ebb to win an election by legitimate means.

That was implicit in Muscat’s own reaction from the very beginning: he called it the ‘biggest lie in Maltese political history’. And naturally, he didn’t supply any proof, either. Why should he, when the allegation he was rebutting was itself unsupported by any evidence?

Speaking for myself: I don’t see why I should believe one version any more (or less) than the other. Both those scenarios seem equally plausible to me. It’s not as though Malta is immune to such things either way: we have seen governments indulging in outrageous corruption before... and we have also seen political parties resorting to the most desperate measures imaginable to seize power (there is even a colloquialism for this in contemporary Maltese: ‘Terinata’, named after a famous case dating back to the 1920s. That’s how far back our local history of similar political machinations goes...)

In fact, without evidence either way, I fail to see how anyone can just summarily pass judgment on this case... or any other, for that matter. Yet that is what nearly everyone is currently doing, even as I write. From the European Parliament, all the way down to the most uninformed and unintelligible online commentator... everyone is just picking and choosing which version most suits the preferred political agenda, and calling it ‘justice’.

Sorry, but that is not how justice works. Michelle Muscat either is the UBO of Egrant, or she isn’t.  Money was either deposited into that account, or it wasn’t. What you, me, the PANA committee, or anyone else under the sun thinks is entirely irrelevant. So enough of this mad scramble for condemnation or acquittal without proof. Justice without proof is not justice at all. And justice dictated only by political prejudice is... ugh. I don’t even want to finish that sentence...

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