Not just ‘insensitive’, but irresponsible

There are no legal or ‘procedural’ grounds to object to the prison leave, but it doesn’t mean that there is nothing objectionable about the decision, at all.

On Monday, lawyers representing George ‘ic-Ciniz’ Degiorgio – convicted last October for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia – filed a judicial protest against the Prime Minister, over comments about the ‘prison leave’ granted to their client to attend a family baptism party. 

Specifically, Robert Abela said: “A person who was found guilty of one of the worst crimes was let out of prison this week. This is one of the most insensitive decisions for our society. Most insensitive to the victims of this criminal. It’s a decision that sends a bad message to society.” 

In their judicial protest, lawyers Leslie Cuschieri and Noel Bianco hinted that the Prime Minister’s comments may influence the course of other criminal proceedings against Degiorgio: including for the murder, together with other members of the Maksar gang, of lawyer Carmel Chircop in 2015. “Certainly, [Abela’s statements] leave a serious and unjust impact on the population, from amongst whom the jurors in future proceedings must be chosen, to the detriment of justice and to the plaintiff.” They also lashed out at media coverage of the issue, criticising what they said was “incorrect reporting of the wrong message.”

“Whilst it is every person’s sacred right to express themselves and their opinions, in this particular case, there were many who pontificated as to what should be done with [Degiorgio’s] request… when the truth is far from what was said.” 

Yet it does not appear that the Prime Minister’s comments – or even the media coverage of the incident – contradict the ‘truth’ about what really happened. The facts are as follows: on 16 February, Cuschieri and Bianco filed an application February for Degiorgio to attend a baptism party for his grand-daughter.  Although the General Attorney objected, the Criminal Court agreed to his attendance, subject to certain conditions.

The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that decision: subject to the approval and discretion of the Director of the Correctional Services Agency.

As such, there are no legal or ‘procedural’ grounds to object to the prison leave. But it doesn’t mean that there is nothing objectionable about the decision, at all.

The fact remains that the Maltese public WAS enraged – and justifiably, too – when images uploaded online showed a jolly Degiorgio posing for photos, with a drink in hand, surrounded by smiling family members: only five months into a 40-year prison sentence, for one of the most brutal, and shocking, murders in recent history.

In and of itself, the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia had broken open a Pandora’s Box of mafia-political relations; it compromised police and financial investigators; and unveiled a network of corruption relating to the state’s major national projects. It therefore beggars belief, that a risk assessment of a convict like Degiorgio – whose son Denzel proudly parades his name as the ‘head of the Maltese mafia’ – should be allowed such liberties.

Certainly, the decision does ‘send out the wrong message to society’. Not only does it offend a national sentiment that is still profoundly disturbed by the memory of the 2017 assassination; but it also imparts the impression that members of the Maltese mafia continue to enjoy ‘privileges’ and ‘concessions’, even after being convicted for their crimes.

People are therefore right, to question whether justice is truly being served in this case. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that CCF inmates are eligible for controlled prison leave for events that have a humanitarian dimension: such as funerals, for example. 

But where would it stop for high-risk prisoners, with links to the Maltese underworld of money-launderers and criminal gangs, if they were to be allowed leave to attend baptisms, birthday parties, and so many more rites of passage, for which celebrations are in order? Surely, the Degiorgios would be getting more than they bargained for when they pleaded guilty… only to later appeal their own ‘guilty’ plea.

But the substance of both the Prime Minister’s comments, and the media coverage, concerns the fact that the authorities consented to the ‘prison-leave’: even though it was within their power to deny it.

More than a legal or procedural issue, then, it boils down (yet again) to a lack of ‘character and backbone’ by the forces of law and order. As clearly explained by deputy Attorney General Philip Galea Farrugia, it was well within the discretion of the courts and prison director to deny prison leave, to someone who was not just serving sentences for murder and money laundering; but also facing charges for other crimes, including murder.

Even a back-of-the-envelope calculation would have anticipated the kind of public outrage that such a concession would have led to. Unless, of course, one might concede that this kind of prison leave was also designed to allow investigators to monitor the extended web of family and fraternal interests, cultivated in the Degiorgio family. One can only hope that this could have been the actual intention; and if so, that this ‘foresight’ from law enforcement will be richly rewarded.

Otherwise, the decision will only cement the popular perception that ‘something is rotten’ within the Maltese criminal justice system. And that is not just ‘insensitive’, at this particular juncture; but also deeply irresponsible.