Why Byron Camilleri has to go

Minister Byron Camilleri stopped short of taking the bull by the horns when dealing with Col. Alex Dalli

It tells us something about the state of our criminal justice system, that news of yet another suicide in Malta’s prison is no longer treated as a matter of national concern: but rather, as an ‘inevitability’.

It is as though the entire country has – in many cases, knowingly – resigned itself to a situation where its ‘correctional facility’ actually succeeds in killing its inmates, more than in ‘rehabilitating’ them. And this is not only shocking and shameful in itself; but it is also a grave blot on the character and reputation of the current administration of government.

Even without a past history of entirely analogous prison deaths, over the past two years alone we see how deeply distressing it is that both the government, and large segments of the population, seem not to understand even the most basic concepts of human civilisation: including the cornerstone of fundamental human rights.

Respect for the basic rights of prisoners is not – as is so commonly perceived – an ‘act of mercy’, or a ‘generous concession by the State’. It is a fundamental moral obligation; which we owe, above all, to ourselves as civilised human beings; but also, a duty enshrined in all the treaties and conventions we have ever signed as a nation.

Nor can it escape notice that this latest fatality is not only the third prison suicide to have occurred this year alone: but also, the 13th mysterious death (many of them also suicides) to have taken place since 2018; when Colonel Alex Dalli was originally appointed as director of CCF.

A controversial choice to begin with, Col. Dalli also went on to establish a reputation as an iron-fisted, military drill-sergeant; and while there may even be some justification for that approach – it is, after all, a prison – this also coincided with numerous reports of alleged cruel, degrading treatment at the facility.

Suffice it to say that Dalli is now the subject of numerous investigations and magisterial inquiries – many of which into unexplained deaths – and yet, throughout all this time, Justice Minister Byron Camilleri has doggedly defended the prison director, every step of the way.

He did this, much in the same way as he is now defending himself from resignation calls; but it must be said that, in both cases, his defence has been very flimsy indeed.

“I decide on facts, such as on inquiries. In the coming days I hope to have in hand the copy of the last inquiry. I would also have the report of the inquiry that I had appointed. So every time I come to take a decision, I would do so based on facts, as that is my obligation as a minister,” he said…

… only this is not a quote from November 2021, in response to the latest prison suicide; on the contrary, it is from his reaction to a previous suicide – in September this year – where he also said that:

“My thoughts are that, in the same way we introduced checks and balances within the Police Force, we would introduce checks and balances in the laws and systems regulating the prison. Through better systems of checks and balances we can provide peace of mind.”

Two months later, there are still no signs of any serious political will to implement this ‘better system of checks and balances’; much more seriously, however, there has now been yet another fatality to add to the growing list.

Clearly, then, it is insufficient to simply repeat the same excuses today, as two months ago. Yet that is what Camilleri appears to be doing.

“I always acted and am obliged to act on the basis of the facts presented to me,” he said in response to the latest tragedy. Unfortunately, however, that claim does not really stand up to scrutiny.

The true facts – as they were presented to him on repeated occasions, by all the shocking news emerging from prison – is that government postponed taking the necessary action on numerous occasions. In reality, Justice Minister Bryon Camilleri simply stood by, keeping Alex Dalli on board even after the second of three successive prison suicides, in the space of a few months.

And with this latest prison death taking place while other inquiries, and an internal review of admission proceedings, were ongoing… it only illustrates the fact that Camilleri ignored countless earlier warnings, to persist with a policy that was clearly endangering lives.

To cap it all, Byron Camilleri stopped short of taking the bull by the horns even now, after the latest incident. He has, in fact, been further humiliated, in that that it had to be the Director of Prisons, Alex Dalli, to suspend himself: thus demonstrating his degree of impunity, and illustrating the blunt fact that no one could make him resign, unless he himself chose – as an act of grace – to go of his own accord.

At the risk of being blunt: the least of these shortcomings renders Byron Camilleri unfit for purpose to serve in any ministry portfolio, still less, one as sensitive and consequential as home affairs. Clearly, he has to go.