Of presidential pardons and electoral considerations

It would be unacceptable if the prosecution fumbles and allows those accused of masterminding the racket to get off the hook on a technicality or lack of proof

Presidential pardons are always controversial. They are inherently unfair because people who did wrong end up not paying for the crime they committed. 

However, apart from cases when a pardon may be justified on humanitarian grounds, there may be instances when a pardon is needed to secure the conviction of the bigger fish. 

The presidential pardon granted to the hundreds of people who fraudulently benefitted from the social benefits racket masterminded by former Labour MP Silvio Grixti appears to be a mix of both. 

To benefit from the pardon, the individuals concerned have to pay back the ill-gotten gains or enter into a repayment programme with the government. Additionally, they are bound to testify against the organisers of this corrupt scheme that cost taxpayers around €6 million. 

The two conditions attached to the pardon are necessary because they somehow mitigate the unfairness such an amnesty creates towards law-abiding honest taxpayers. The repayment condition allows the State to recover the money it was defrauded but it must be underlined that what these people did was wrong. 

They knowingly received benefits they were never entitled to with some cheekily stating in their application that they had to give up their driving licence when this was evidently not the case. And if some of these people feel they were misled by the masterminds of the fraudulent scheme, they should redirect their anger towards those who led them down the rabbit hole. 

Nonetheless, there are two issues arising from this pardon that require some reflection. 

The first issue concerns the condition that requires the beneficiaries to testify. This leader hopes that the Attorney General has the legal instruments and willingness to seek the withdrawal of the pardon if beneficiaries start to forget names and details when they are asked to testify. 

This is not a far-fetched scenario since we have already witnessed this happening in different circumstances during the HSBC heist proceedings. In these criminal proceedings, a convicted criminal was offered a plea bargain agreement that ensured he got a lower jail term in exchange for testifying against his co-accused. But when the time came, he refused to testify, leaving the prosecution high and dry. 

The condition that pardoned beneficiaries must testify against the organisers of the racket appears good on paper and makes for good PR to sugar the bitter pill honest citizens have to swallow. However, we hope the condition will be legally enforceable without complications if the individuals involved suddenly get a bout of amnesia in court or simply refuse to tell all. 

The second issue concerns the timing of this amnesty. The government may argue that it was timed to coincide with the court decision that Silvio Grixti and his associates should be formally indicted as the case against them continues. 

However, such a decision taken less than two months before European and local council elections raises eyebrows. It is pretty evident that the Labour Party was under pressure since most of the beneficiaries hailed from Labour-leaning constituencies. We just hope that electoral considerations were not part of the equation when Cabinet discussed the pardon because it would undermine any legitimate justification for the amnesty. 

A third issue, unrelated to the pardon itself, is the strength of the prosecution against Grixti and his associates. It has been made clear by the government that the presidential pardon will not apply to those who organised the corrupt scheme and this leader hopes this will remain so. But we also expect the police and the Attorney General to have built a solid case against the accused that will lead to conviction. It would be unacceptable if the prosecution fumbles and allows the accused to get off the hook on a technicality or lack of proof. 

Additionally, the police must also investigate whether there were others who were not directly involved in the fraud but knowingly referred people to Grixti and his associates to secure their political support even though they did not qualify for benefits.