Justice must be seen to be done

As the latest Enemalta scandal unfolds, there is an increasing danger of losing sight of what really happened in the mad scramble to apportion or deflect political blame.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

As the latest Enemalta scandal unfolds, there is an increasing danger of losing sight of what really happened in the mad scramble to apportion or deflect political blame.

Calls for resignation have now been made on both sides of the House. The Nationalist Opposition has demanded the Police Commissioner’s head, for allegedly succumbing to ‘political pressure’ not to prosecute any of the alleged cases of energy theft. Separately, Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi has urged his predecessor Tonio Fenech to ‘vanish from the political scene’, over his failure to take action on the scandal when it first came to light.

But the truth is that neither government nor opposition emerges unscathed from this episode, which has also exposed a glaring flaw in the way justice is administered as a whole in this country.

On one level, the PN is not exactly well-positioned to comment, having occasionally interfered in police work in the past (former PM Eddie Fenech Adami had involved himself directly in the investigation into Richard Cachia Caruana’s attempted murder, for instance).

But at the same time it is merely echoing public anger and bewilderment at the police’s decision to avoid a mass prosecution that could be embarrassing or damaging to government… at a time when the same police are often eager to prosecute ordinary citizens for even the most trivial of offences.

Nonetheless, it stretches the definition of ‘political interference’ to assume that the Police Commissioner was responding to a direct order, when it is equally plausible that prosecution had already been rendered pointless by a premature (and highly questionable) government decision to grant a blanket amnesty.

Conversely, the same allegation of ‘political interference’ also illustrates the problem with government’s own stand on the issue. Konrad Mizzi may well have a point when he tries to turn the tables onto the previous administration – it is undeniable that the rot, in this case, had set in long before the last election – but this does not exonerate his own government of a decision that may well have impeded the natural course of justice.

Nor have the official justifications for the amnesty been very convincing thus far. It may be legally acceptable to waive charges of theft, provided the stolen goods are returned and a penalty paid: but this does not justify the protection of the identity of the accused; and it does not apply to bribery (which is a two-way crime) either.

On the other hand, a blanket amnesty may certainly provide a legal solution to a quandary which would otherwise cost government both electoral support and the backing of the commercial classes. But this is hardly a justifiable pretext to prevent justice from being done.

As things stand, people are rightly unable to comprehend how a case of theft and bribery amounting to over €2 million may go unpunished, and its perpetrators not even exposed in public. Their consternation is fully justified. This week, a nurse from Kalkara was charged in court (and named in the press) with stealing €12 worth of medicines from a hospital.

She is one of an infinite number of nonentities to feel the full brunt of a legal system which often seems insensitive to the plight of the ordinary citizen. Yet at the same time, perpetrators of theft on a grand scale – 10% of which is reported to involve businesses – are not only let off the hook altogether, but even offered protection by the authorities.

The double standards are too conspicuous to ignore. Government clearly owes the public a much more thorough explanation than has been forthcoming.

Even now, legal procedures should be left to take their toll, if public confidence in the justice system is to be restored. The police have no legal pretext to simply ignore the case, as they have so far done. And there is no justification for keeping the suspects’ identities secret, either.

On the contrary, the government’s apparent commitment to protect the suspects does not sit at all well with its former pledges to promote accountability and transparency at all levels; nor with its commitment to enact a Whistleblowers’ Act; still less with its previous criticism of the Nationalist government for turning a blind eye to corruption.

Moreover, the secrecy surrounding this case is clearly unfair on those who may be wrongly suspected of abuse. Earlier this week the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association reacted angrily to press reports that the names of established hotels were among the list of suspects, though none was identified. One can understand the hoteliers’ concern, but that only reinforces the point that corruption allegations cannot be left unspecified, as they will tend to tar an entire segment with the same brush.

This is in fact one of the pillars upholding the principle that justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done. Yet it becomes difficult to see justice in operation when public discussions are skewed by political interests.

There has been enough hindrance in this case already. The public is right to expect justice to run its full course, without any further excuses or delays.

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