Delivering heads on a stick

Much remains to be done, if we are to shed the image – so carelessly cultivated under the Muscat administration – that there was ‘one law for lesser mortals, and no law at all for the gods’

When Angelo Gafà was appointed Police Commissioner last June, it was widely acknowledged that he faced a daunting uphill struggle. 

Former Prime Minister Alfred Sant, for instance, voiced the opinions of many when he tweeted that: “The New Police commissioner will have a lot on his plate, he will need to come to immediate grips with firefighting the essentials, meanwhile he must get on [and] drive the much-needed structural changes…” 

It must be said, however, that in the short time Gafà has occupied that sensitive post, there has been a visible step forward when it comes to police work in general: but most notably, on the issues of justice on financial crime. 

Following years of inaction on the 2016 Panama Papers scandal, the two main political protagonists – former energy minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri – were finally interrogated under arrest on 12 November. 

Two months earlier, Schembri had already been arrested in connection with an investigation into an alleged €100,000 kickback he took on passport sales from his auditor, Brian Tonna.  

Apart from demonstrating a previously-lacking commitment to take action, these arrests also put into evidence a similar change of heart by the office of the Attorney General (also under new leadership).  

In Schembri’s case, the September arrest came after the new AG Victoria Buttigieg asked the court to impose a freezing order on all Schembri’s assets, including those of his immediate family and companies. 

All this stands in stark contrast to the reluctance, previously displayed by both former Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and former Attorney General Peter Grech, to investigate and prosecute cases involving highly-placed politicians within the Joseph Muscat administration. 

And while the belated action may also have been influenced by the pressures of the imminent Moneyval evaluation: this fact, in itself, also illustrates the sheer cost of the previous culture of political immunity.  

In the end, Malta’s prolonged tolerance of financial crime became a threat to the country’s very economic survival. As such, Prime Minister Robert Abela’s choices seem to have already paid dividends: for, regardless of the outcome of Moneyval, it remains crucial that Abela iss een to be taking Malta’s rule of law shortcomings very seriously indeed. 

Much the same applies to Malta’s previous culture of inaction against organised crime: two years later, it remains inexplicable how no action had ever been taken against two Maltese nationals, despite a 2018 Catania court ruling which exposed their involvement in an international money laundering and fuel smuggling racket. 

It was only this week that Darren Debono, Gordon Debono (no relation) and Jeffrey Chetcuti – along with 12 other suspects – were finally arrested and a few charged over their alleged role activities that could be related to that multi-million criminal operation. 

It says something about our previous reputation, that the Embassy of the United States would welcome these developments with the words: “Through the international anti-money laundering operation, Malta has demonstrated its commitment to working with its regional and international partners, including Europol, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to […] fight transnational organized crime.” 

This must also be viewed against the backdrop of a €261,000 fine, imposed by the FIAU against Credence Corporate Advisory Services: one of the corporate service providers found by MaltaFiles to have facilitated massive tax avoidance for oligarchs. 

There is no doubt, then, that all these actions have done a great deal to restore a semblance of normality in a State that has been damaged – both reputationally and psychologically – by the ramifications of the deplorable events of the past four years: Panama Papers, its aftermath, the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the alleged complicity of the Muscat administration in serious allegations of corruption. 

Nonetheless, this should not be a matter of triumphalism for the incumbent Labour administration. Such achievements – coming so late in the day – take place against the backdrop of a ruthless dispensation with the norms of law and justice. Much remains to be done, if we are to shed the image – so carelessly cultivated under the Muscat administration – that there was ‘one law for lesser mortals, and no law at all for the gods’. 

All the same, it is to Robert Abela’s credit that active steps have been taken to achieve certain results; and certainly enough to allay the pressure of civil society groups which had made their anger and righteous indignation heard in November 2019.  

It is now time for the Labour administration to reinforce and support the role of the Maltese police force’s newfound vigour to prosecute such crimes, and deliver the ‘heads on the stick’ needed to restore normality to Malta.