A brave initiative that must deliver an outcome

Though any step that can bring closure to this case is to be welcomed, Muscat’s initiative remains a risky one, in a country where Presidential pardons have a history of failing to solve crimes

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat yesterday announced that he would be willing to recommend a Presidential pardon to a suspect allegedly involved in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia provided he reveals everything he knows about the case.

Though any step that can bring closure to this case is to be welcomed, Muscat’s initiative remains a risky one, in a country where Presidential pardons have a history of failing to solve crimes.

This in turn explains the caution with which Muscat broke the news on Tuesday morning. He made it clear that immunity from prosecution will only be granted to the alleged middle man, conditional on him providing enough evidence to build a solid case against the person/s who commissioned the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Caution is certainly warranted at this delicate stage, but if this arrest can lead to information that can assist investigators to arrest the mastermind behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, Muscat’s decision is welcome.

It is however unfortunate to note that this tool in the hands of the prosecution has not been strengthened under law, despite past cases – such as that of Zeppi l-Hafi and George Farrugia – which showed how futile and insufficient pardons can be, if improperly applied.

No effort has been made to strengthen this institution since then, so it is important not to repeat mistakes of the past: where blanket pardons were granted, without leading to the desired outcome.

It would have been preferable had government embarked on a reform of the legislation underpinning Presidential pardons as a whole, rather than take what Muscat himself described as an ‘unprecedented’ initiative: that of attaching conditions to the immunity.

Moreover, depending on the quality of any evidence that will be forthcoming, it is worth questioning whether a Presidential pardon is even needed to secure the necessary convictions.

If the suspect only provides evidence than can be corroborated by third parties, or by other means, a case could surely be made against the alleged masterminds even in the absence of a pardon.

Nonetheless, much depends on the nature of the information provided. If the testimony of the middleman is indeed the only way to identify and apprehend those who commissioned the murder, Muscat’s initiative may yet prove the only feasible way forward.

But in this case, prosecutors will have a difficult time proving accusations. So any information given through the pardon must be ironclad.

But there are other considerations which so far are not catered for by law. The masterminds of this murder are hardened criminals, likely to be involved in organised crime. They have already committed at least one murder, and can be expected to resort to any drastic action to silence any witness willing to incriminate them.

Malta does not have the equivalent of a witness protection programme, of the kind associated with similar trials elsewhere.

Interviewed by MaltaToday, parliamentary secretary Julia Farrugia-Portelli recently hinted at a draft law to this effect in the context of human trafficking:

“This is an area where, in the past, nobody wanted to venture. It runs into millions of euros: in other countries, around 150 million euro a year,” Farrugia-Portelli said. “But if someone is going to expose an international human trafficking ring… they have to be given a new identity. And they can’t be accommodated [locally]… because they’d still run the risk of coming into contact with their aggressors. We would need agreements with other countries, so that the person under protection will be relocated overseas: under a new name, with new documents, and with money to cover housing, and so on.”

Ideally, the introduction of a witness protection programme should coincide with a thorough reform of the laws governing presidential pardons as a whole.

It would be unhealthy for such issues to be approached only from an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. The law should clearly specify under what circumstances pardons are to contemplated; and there should be clear, transparent parameters within which they should be applied.

Muscat already stated a blanket pardon cannot be issued on all the man’s crimes, until it is clear his evidence will lead to the arrest of the mastermind. One sincerely hopes that any information obtained through this measure is sufficient to clear the air of increasingly dangerous speculation and rumour regarding the identity and motives of the murderers in this case.

Media speculation – especially on the social media, and in comments sections of the mainstream press – has already done untold damage to the chances of ever reaching closure, in a case that has polarised public opinion and deepened our already existing political divisions.

Unfortunately, past experience has not been heeded in this case. Though it should not even bear repeating, a successful prosecution can only come about as a result of cast-iron evidence presented in a court of law.

As such, the Prime Minister’s decision remains a brave – albeit risky – one, and as such can only be commended. But further debate and strengthening of this institution is sorely needed.