Justice has only begun to be served

Five years after the murder itself, Abela’s government still proves incapable of building bridges to the Caruana Galizia family or reconcile itself with the consequences of this assassination

On Friday, the law courts handed down a 40-year prison sentence to George and Alfred Degiorgio – the two trigger-men who admitted to planting the car-bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 – in a dramatic turn of events that effectively brought a five-year court case to an abrupt end.

The importance of this development cannot be overstated. On one level, the suspects’ official admission has finally put paid to a ‘presumption of innocence’ principle that (quite frankly) had become a bit of a charade, applied to this case… given that George Degiorgio had already publicly confessed to the crime, in an interview with Reuters.

Nonetheless, by changing their plea to guilty – even if ‘at the eleventh hour’ – the Degiorgio brothers ceased to be mere ‘suspects’, and can now be described for what they truly are: cold-blooded killers, who had no qualms whatsoever about murdering a woman for money; still less, about the ‘chilling effect’ their grisly crime had on freedom of expression; or the trauma it caused the entire nation.

From this perspective, it could even be argued that the 40-year prison sentence was ‘too lenient’. But still: the fact that it was agreed to by both defence and prosecution – and more importantly, with the approval of the Caruana Galizia family – certainly adds weight to the perception that (in the words of Repubblika) ‘this looks like justice [being served]’.

All the same, however, it would be a mistake to conclude that justice HAS, in fact, been fully served: either to the family of the victim – which is still owed compensation for their loss – or to the country as a whole.

For as Matthew Caruana Galizia aptly put it, upon leaving the courtroom last Friday: “it’s now about the other cases”…  including, naturally, the ongoing trial of Yorgen Fenech: accused of being the mastermind who commissioned the entire crime.

And this raises two immediate concerns, for the future. Much has already been written (in this editorial, and elsewhere) about the unacceptable duration of certain criminal trials, in Malta’s justice system; in fact, the compilation of evidence stage in the Degiorgio case ended up taking an astonishing four-and-a-half years – even if, paradoxically, the actual murder trial itself was over in less than four hours.

There were, of course, reasons for this delay: not least, the sheer amount of evidence, running into 400 gigabytes of audio-visual material, that had to be compiled; and also, the incessant, vexatious ‘delaying tactics’ used by the two suspects.

Yorgen Fenech’s case is likewise still at ‘compilation stage’; and once again, there is a veritable mountain of evidence to sift through. Moreover, Fenech himself was arrested in November 2019 – two years after the Degiorgio brothers – so it follows that his own trial can only be expected to take longer still.

And while it is naturally impossible to predict future twists and turns to this saga: it is unlikely, at this stage, that Fenech’s legal team will follow the Degiorgios’ example, and simply change their plea to guilty once the trial begins. This in turn suggests that Fenech’s own trial by jury – whensoever it actually commences – may well end up being another long-drawn out affair.

As such, Prime Minister Robert Abela was quite correct to describe Friday’s verdict as “an important step forward, to deliver justice in a case that represents a dark chapter in Malta’s history.” For while it is deniably ‘important’… it remains but a small step, in a journey that may yet be far from over.

So far, however, we have focused only upon the legal aspects of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder trial. But as this newspaper argued in 2020: “justice for Daphne is justice for Malta. Not merely because the entire country needs nothing less than full closure, to heal the wounds left by this brutal crime; but also because the factors that made this murder possible in the first place – and which can be seen to have hindered, or at least tried to hinder, the subsequent judicial process – are also institutional shortcomings that affect the entire justice system: and not this particular case only.”

 This implies that the law-courts are not the only institution that is expected to contribute to the delivery of justice. The government, too – and Robert Abela, in particular – has a crucial part to play.

Is it really delivering, though? Suffice it to say that well over a year has gone by, since a judicial inquiry established that the Maltese State bore responsibility for the murder, by creating (and nurturing) the ‘octopus of corruption’ that made the crime possible to begin with.

Yet government is still actively dragging its feet, when it comes to implementing all the recommendations of the same inquiry (not to mention the Venice Commission, and the EP’s rule of law committee).

Worse still: five years after the murder itself, Abela’s government still proves incapable of building bridges to the Caruana Galizia family or reconcile itself with the consequences of this assassination: by compensation for the family, by memorialising Caruana Galizia and the meaning of the assassination for Malta, and for Labour to make its own act of reconciliation with the conditions that led to her assassination.

These, too, are ‘important steps’ that need to be taken, if Malta is ever to truly close this dark chapter once and for all.