Do not feed illegalities

There is simply no justification whatsoever for the fact that an entirely illegal zoo at Montekristo estate in Hal Farrug should have been allowed to operate unhindered for so long.

Once again it had to take a potentially fatal accident – this time involving a three-year-old toddler, badly mauled by a tiger in an unlicensed, illegal zoo – to bring to the fore the ugly state of affairs in Malta.

Two other recent incidents – the automobile crash at Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina, and a stampede in a Paceville nightclub – had already alerted the country to the fact that safety and security measures should not be taken for granted, to put it charitably. 

Although the circumstances were vastly different, there is undeniably a common thread uniting the various incidents. To different extents, they all illustrate the sheer helplessness of the authorities in the face of a political stalemate that renders certain people immune to the consequences of their actions.

There is simply no justification whatsoever for the fact that an entirely illegal zoo at Montekristo estate in Hal Farrug – described by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority itself as ‘Malta’s largest illegal development’ – should have been allowed to operate unhindered for so long.

One need only compare MEPA’s tolerance in this case to its ham-fisted way of dealing with other, much less serious infringements, to realise that this issue goes well beyond health and safety issues

What’s at stake is the rule of law in a 21st century EU member state. It is simply unconscionable that such a serious illegality – now proven to pose a danger to the public, precisely because the lack of any serious regulation – should be permitted to persist, simply because the perpetrator wields excessive influence over the political parties.

It was a shameful state of affairs even before this ugly incident. How much more reprehensible is it now, that a three-year-old boy has suffered critical injuries (which according to reports, may even require facial reconstruction surgery) as a direct consequence of what is ultimately political collusion with crime.

What this tragic incident exposes is the shocking price society has to pay, for a political class that is clueless and toothless when dealing with illegalities perpetuated by the very same people who bankroll the political circus.

This illegal zoo is part of a wider complex owned by Charles Polidano, who has built an empire by blackmailing the two major political parties: and as such clearly considers himself above the law.

It marks the latest in a series of incidents that have underscored the same point. In 2002, MEPA issued a garnishee order over the construction magnate’s failure to pay the mandatory contribution to a MEPA environment-improvement fund: imposed over the illegal development of the former Solemar Hotel in Marfa.

Polidano’s reaction was to threaten to lay off 1,200 workers, after which the authority beat an undignified retreat.

Polidano’s unstoppable ascendency also overrides the political divide. A few months after coming into office, Joseph Muscat’s government made a huge show of force when it sent bulldozers, armed police and the army to pull down illegalities at Polidano’s Montekristo estate.

However, the show force proved to be nothing but a farce, as the enforcement action was stopped by a timely and predictable court prohibitory injunction. 

To this day, the illegal structures are still standing tall and proud and many a politician has taken a ‘selfie’ with Polidano’s monstrosities as a backdrop.

Last July, MEPA was prevented from stopping a trade fair from taking place on Polidano’s illegal premises. Despite MEPA’s refusal to grant a permit, the fair went ahead as planned and was presided over by the President of the Republic. 

Likewise, Transport Malta proved powerless to prevent Polidano from putting up directional signs – in imitation of official signage for cultural and tourist attractions – pointing towards the Montekristo Estate. Not only was a blind eye turned to the illegality itself: but the operators of the ‘zoo’ are even allowed to erect signs that give the impression that it has been sanctioned by the authorities.

The message is painfully clear. As long as they continue financing the political parties, Polidano and his ilk will remain above the law. They are allowed to operate illegally, and make profits from their illegalities, and even advertise the illegal services with impunity.

Politicians not only acquiesce in this ugly, bullish state of affairs, they also legitimise these illegalities by holding events and functions there.

This corrodes all claims of good governance and fairness, because it not only allows illegalities to carry on unhindered but it sends out the message that – in the name of money and greed – the law is not equal for all.

The government’s tame reaction in the wake of the incident does not give us much hope for the future. Politicians of both hues are clearly unwilling to take a zero-tolerance stance in the face of such brazen lawlessness. The zoo might be closed for now, but given Polidano’s record it will reopen in no time soon.

There is a danger that the warning of this accident will likewise go unheeded, and that after a while, everything will slide back to normal as if nothing ever happened. 

Yet that small child will remain maimed for life, physically and psychologically. We owe it to him, and to ourselves, to stop feeding illegalities in this country, and to inculcate serious standards of law enforcement once and for all.

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