A warning of ‘bigger things to come’

If the institutions are truly working, however, people like Frederick Azzopardi would not need any show of support to make their case in court

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s reaction, to the arraignment of Infrastructure Malta CEO Frederick Azzopardi, strongly suggests that he has yet to learn the lessons from his own downfall in 2020.

Azzopardi is facing charges regarding events which happened two years ago: when IM workers defied a stop and compliance notice issued by the Environment and Resources Authority, over illegal works at Wied Qirda in Żebbuġ.

As a result of the agency’s decision to reinforce a road leading to a private residence in the rural area, plants and protected trees were uprooted, and habitats in the sensitive ecological area were destroyed.

Effectively, that constitutes an ‘environmental crime’; and - without entering the question of Azzopardi’s own responsibility, in this case – if there is one lesson we should have learnt, from recent events, it is that is nobody is above the law.

As such, it should be welcome news that environmental crimes are finally being prosecuted by the institutions. Like any public official, Azzopardi should be accountable for his actions.

At the same time, however, his rights as a defendant must be respected; and his political connections should not be used as ‘evidence against him’, either. Certainly, police action on this particular case should not be construed as a verdict on Azzopardi’s legacy, as the driving force behind the Labour government’s road buildings blitz.

But for Muscat to argue that the entire case was a ‘charade’ – or, as he put it, a ‘tick-the-box exercise’ – is wrong for several reasons: not least, because it implies that people in authority should not, in fact, be accountable to the public for their actions at all.

Moreover, by weighing in so heavily on this particular case, Muscat has turned (or tried to turn) the issue into a political ‘cause-celebre’: claiming, among other things, that Malta’s institutions tend to ‘crumble at the first sign of pressure’.

He was referring to the fact that action was taken only after a criminal complaint had been filed by Arnold Cassola: a lifelong critic of the political establishment, who by no stretch of the imagination has any power to dictate police action.

To be fair, action should certainly have been more timely: had the police proceeded immediately two years ago, the arraignment would not have been perceived as one which was only undertaken on Cassola’s insistence.

Nonetheless, it remains a perception that has no basis in reality. And besides: it is somewhat ironic, that Muscat (of all people) should be accusing the police of being ‘conditioned’ by the likes of Cassola.

If anyone ever had any real power to influence the course of justice, in this country, it is certainly not Arnold Cassola - who never wielded any power at all - but former Prime Ministers such as Joseph Muscat.

But Muscat’s intervention also adds unnecessary pressures on the judicial system: especially by calling on the general public to protest outside the law-courts. For while Azzopardi is clearly entitled to his defence; this surely does not need any ‘show of force’.

Indeed, these antics clearly contradict Muscat’s own message, when still Prime Minister (which is the same as the Labour government’s message, today): i.e., that the ‘institutions are working’; and that people should simply let the police and the law-courts do their job.

If the institutions are truly working, however, people like Frederick Azzopardi would not need any show of support to make their case in court.

Perhaps more worryingly, however, Muscat’s behaviour also sends a chilling message to the police, in their investigations related to other officials close to his administration. The message sent by Muscat is that he will not abandon his friends; and that he is ready to stamp his feet, and ‘rally the troops’, whenever they face legal prosecutions.

But the most sinister implication is the indirect warning by Muscat to Robert Abela. By calling out to the people to make their voices heard, and referring to “the sound of thousands”, Muscat is once again upsetting his successor’s apple cart. For Abela’s hold on the party depends on a delicate balancing act, between that part of Labour’s electorate which remains loyal to Muscat; and others who may still vote Labour, but want justice and truth on the many scandals which took place under the former administration.

Yet Muscat himself may well be suffering from delusions of grandeur. For despite finding an echo in Manwel Cuschieri, Muscat’s appeal for solidarity resulted in only a handful of people assembling in front of the law courts on Tuesday.

Nonetheless, the risk is that this may simply a warning on ‘bigger things to come’.  For the question remains; how will Muscat react when action is finally taken on more serious cases like the hospital deal with Vitals and the Montenegro wind farm scandals?

Perhaps Muscat would be wise to take a leaf from his predecessor (Alfred Sant)’s book; and respect his successor’s mandate by avoiding the limelight. But Muscat’s intervention suggests that his greatest fear is that - bereft of the public support he still cultivates - he would become weaker and more vulnerable to possible investigations: this time, into his own former actions as Prime Minister.