A ‘blunder’ of gargantuan proportions

What happened in court was more than just a classic miscarriage of justice but a sort of debacle that can only raise serious doubts about the administration of justice in this country

What happened in court this week was more than just a classic ‘miscarriage of justice’, brought about by mere legal technicalities alone. On the contrary: it was the sort of debacle that can only raise serious doubts about the administration of justice in this country, as a whole.

In simple terms: Yorgen Fenech’s lawyers have been cleared of attempted bribery of a journalist, af­ter the magistrate ruled that the relevant offence had not been properly indicated by the Attorney Gener­al’s office.

Lawyers Charles Mercieca - who had previously worked in the AG office, in a clear case of revolv­ing doors - and Gianluca Caruana Curran had been charged with attempting to bribe Times of Malta journalist Ivan Martin, by handing him hundreds of euros at the end of a meeting at their Valletta office.

However, when delivering judgment on Mon­day, Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras noted that while the lawyers were charged with active bribery by the police, the Attorney General had indicated a different provision of law, denoting passive bribery instead. This apparent bungle by the AG forced the magistrate to acquit the two lawyers, without even entering into the merits of the case.

This ‘mistake’ by the AG office is an indication of either gross incompetence, or something even more sinister. For judging the case by its consequences, one is left with two basic outcomes: those who alleg­edly tried to bribe a journalist have been freed; while the victim who denounced the alleged bribery has been denied from the opportunity of seeing justice delivered. For no ‘justice’ can be done, when a case falls apart thanks to an error of such gargantuan pro­portions.

The gravity of this ‘mistake’ is amplified by the high-profile nature of the case: where the bribery attempt was allegedly made by the lawyers of the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia: one of whom previously worked in the AG office.

This latter detail may be irrelevant to the case itself; but it should have prompted extra diligence on the part of the AG to give the public the serenity of mind that justice is being done without fear or favour.

Instead, the public was left with the impression that the State is not up to the challenge, when confront­ing lawyers representing powerful businessmen like Yorgen Fenech. A weak state, when confronting alleged criminals with enough resources to build a strong defence, is surely the best recipe for mafias to flourish.

The least one would have expected, in such a case, is maximum attention to detail on the part of the At­torney General, to ensure that the alleged culprits are prosecuted. Instead, the alleged culprits have emerged scot free, thanks to a banal mistake by the prosecution. This is simply unbelievable, and should have at least triggered the suspension of AG Victoria Buttigieg, pending a full investigation into the inci­dent. For even if Buttigieg was not directly responsi­ble, the blunder still happened on her watch; and at the very least, she owes the public a full explanation.

Moreover, this is not the first blunder committed by the AG’s office: whose actions are already under scrutiny for a plea-bargain with HSBC shooting sus­pect Daren Debono, known as It-Topo, in exchange for a guilty plea and his testimony against other sus­pects. Subsequently the convicted bank-robber told the court that he would not testify about his accom­plices, despite benefiting from a plea deal, saying he feared for his son’s safety.

Furthermore, Victoria Buttigieg was duty-bound to restore the reputation of her office: already tarnished by the institutional paralysis following the Panama revelations under her predecessor, Peter Grech. In fact, Prime Minister Robert Abela himself had praised Buttigieg for her “integrity and competence” in a tweet in which he announced his acceptance of the recommendation by the Independent Appoint­ments Commission, for her appointment to the role.

But this case itself can only cast serious doubts on her competence; if not also on her integrity.

Buttigieg – who had previously served as State Ad­vocate - was appointed as the country’s AG, after the State Advocate’s functions had been separated from those of the Attorney General in 2019.

While the AG retained responsibility for prosecu­tions and criminal matters, the State advocate was made responsible for all government advisory and legal representation in Constitutional, Civil and Administrative Law. The least one would have ex­pected from this reform, however, was to ensure that prosecutions would be carried out in a more profes­sional manner: and certainly not in the slap-dash, amateur way this case was handled.

Following the inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia – which also denounced the climate of intolerance towards journalists – one would have expected the institutions to build a solid case against the alleged culprits, in a case involving the attempted bribery of a Maltese journalist.

In view of this, MaltaToday supports the call made by the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM), for the Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg to shoulder responsibility for her office’s blunder; and we stand in solidarity with journalist Ivan Martin, who was clearly abandoned by the institutions (instead of be­ing protected after doing the right thing, and imme­diately reporting the alleged bribery.)