Prison director, and convicted criminal, at the same time

If Robert Brincau resigned, after having been convicted of a serious crime; Byron Camilleri must now shoulder his own responsibilities, for having so unaccountably defended him

It is both incongruous and disconcerting – though not exactly surprising – that Robert Brincau was still occupying the position of Director of Malta’s Prisons, when he was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for three years, for ‘threatening a man with a handgun’.

Brincau has since stepped down: but only after the verdict itself was handed down yesterday morning.  Effectively, then – albeit for a fleeting moment – he was both ‘Prison Director’, and also a ‘convicted criminal’, at the same time.

Such a situation would be considered ‘surreal’, in any country which took prison administration seriously. Yet in Malta, it was the inevitable result of Justice Minister’s refusal to sack Brincau, at the moment when he was charged last October; and it was also the second time, in the space of just two years, that Byron Camilleri unaccountably defended prison directors, who were facing serious criminal allegations.

In the case of Col. Alex Dalli: Camilleri insisted on defending the former prison director, even while he was under investigation for numerous suicides – or otherwise ‘unexplained deaths’ – that had happened on his watch. And Camilleri maintained his defence, even after yet another suicide took place in prison, while those inquiries were still ongoing.

In the end, Dali suspended himself on November 7 2019: defended to the last by the government which had appointed him (and which even appointed Dalli as its ‘special envoy’ to Libya, after his fall from grace.)

As such, it is no real surprise that Byron Camilleri would adopt exactly the same approach to Robert Brincau: even though – unlike Dalli’s case – the latter was kept in place, despite being formally charged in court with a serious crime.

The precise charges were: threatening a man with a weapon, insulting and threatening the victim, carrying an unlicensed firearm in public, being armed during the commission of an offence, and breaching the peace.

In the course of the trial, witnesses also described how the prison director had allegedly threatened an ambulance crew with a handgun, in an incident apparently motivated by commercial rivalry between the ambulance service provider and the Malta Red Cross (of which Brincau had previously been the director).

Moreover, CCTV footage was also viewed, which showed Brincau “putting his hand behind him and reaching for something tucked into his Bermuda shorts. Although the court was unable to identify what the accused had taken out of the shorts, it noted that the account given to the police was faithful to that seen by the court. The dynamics of the incident as seen on CCTV also matched the account given by the witnesses.”

These and other details emerged in open court, in the course of the last three months. As such, Camilleri cannot feign ‘ignorance’, regarding the severity of the implications (especially given the sensitive nature of the post Brincau occupied, throughout this time).

Yet not only did he maintain support for Brincau throughout proceedings: but at various points, the minister even seemed to cast doubt on the testimony of court witnesses.

In October 2022, he told this newspaper that “there was a clear conflict between the version of events put forward by the parties in the case”; and that “some of the [media reports] were more sensational than others.”

Significantly, he also added that: “It’s up to the court to decide.” But while that may be true for the criminal proceedings against Robert Brincao, it does not address all the questions raised by this case.

For one thing: because when the court did decide on this case, it concluded that “there was no plausible reason for the three eyewitnesses, including a patient who happened to be receiving treatment in the ambulance at the time, to invent such a worrying account of events which the accused denied had happened.”

Byron Camilleri, on the other hand, seemed to think that was plausible reason, for believing that the testimony may have been ‘fabricated’. (Indeed, there is no other explanation – apart from nepotism, of course – to account for why Brincau was retained, in spite of everything).

But for another: the decision to retain Brincau – and Dalli, before him – was a political decision, not a judicial one. As such, there are political responsibilities to be shouldered for the fiasco.

Simply put: the reason this newspaper had called for Brincao’s removal BEFORE the case reached its conclusion, is that – in all spheres of public life; but in prison administration, more than most – it is imperative to ensure that there is nothing that might erode public faith in such an important institution.

Having a prison director in place - who is himself charged in court with committing a violent, armed crime - not only sends out an appalling message, to society at large; but it also weakens the moral authority of the prison director himself; and with it, his capabilities to carry out his duties.

The same also applies to those who wield political power, to appoint (or retain) those officials in the first place. And if Robert Brincau resigned, after having been convicted of a serious crime; Byron Camilleri must now shoulder his own responsibilities, for having so unaccountably defended him.