Lawyers trade barbs as Jason Azzopardi testifies in libel case filed by Owen Bonnici

There were heated exchanges in court this afternoon in a libel case filed by former justice minister Owen Bonnici against PN MP Jason Azzopardi 

Former Justice Minister Owen Bonnici (left) and PN MP Jason Azzopardi
Former Justice Minister Owen Bonnici (left) and PN MP Jason Azzopardi

There were heated exchanges in court this afternoon as lawyers in a libel case filed by former justice minister Owen Bonnici against PN MP Jason Azzopardi argued over Azzopardi’s testimony.

Bonnici filed for libel after Azzopardi had described him as a “liar and a criminal” on Facebook.

Azzopardi took the stand before magistrate Rachel Montebello. He said he would explain why he used those words.

On 22 July 2018, Sunday morning, Azzopardi said, then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had held a press conference in which he “strongly attacked Simon Busuttil as being responsible for a lie necessitating an early election.”

Government, in particular Bonnici, had pushed a narrative saying that the election was called because of the Egrant story, Azzopardi insisted.

At this point, Bonnici’s lawyer, Pawlu Lia interrupted, accusing Azzopardi of misleading the court and using it for political discourse. “This is a political discourse, and the court is permitting it. He is doing it because the journalists are here.” He was overruled.

Simon Busuttil was very worried about allegations that the government could invent something and that he could be charged; after Muscat called him a fraudster, Azzopardi went on.

Lia interrupted the witness again, saying this was all irrelevant to the case at hand. The sitting briefly descended into a shouting match between Lia and Azzopardi’s lawyer Joseph Zammit Maempel.

The court, after hearing the interruptions to the witness, warned the lawyers that in the case of another interruption, the sitting would be suspended and “appropriate steps” taken.

Undeterred, Lia stood up and asked the court, “so don’t I do my job?”

“Dr Lia, the court does not take kindly to this,” reproached the magistrate. “The court needs to understand where the witness is going.”

Azzopardi continued. The night before he wrote the offending words, he said, he was given a copy of the Egrant report. “Minister Bonnici, who had it for a year and 5 months, was complicit in the lie told by the government for months on end. There was an incident in Parliament…Joseph Muscat and Chris Cardona threatened Busuttil that he had falsified signatures.”

Being a cabinet member at the time, Bonnici was an “essential lieutenant” to Muscat and knew that Aaron Bugeja had not recommended criminal steps against Busuttil, said Azzopardi.

Referring to the parliamentary fracas, he said, “the vehemence of the words said to Busuttil by Muscat, with the complicity of Bonnici, in the spreading of the lie… he [Bonnici] never stopped the Prime Minister from saying this, and he was PM’s legal consultant at the time.” A MaltaToday article about the exchange in parliament was exhibited together with a report by the Times about a press conference where Bonnici called upon Busuttil to resign

Lia advised caution in the use of articles of newspapers which “had an agenda” against the individuals involved.

Azzopardi also pointed to the judgment in the case filed by blogger Manuel Delia against Bonnici in which the First Hall of the Civil Court presided by judge Joseph Zammit Mackeon had “several times…showed it did not believe Bonnici.”

“Why a liar? The court said it was of the conviction that the judicial protest was made to impede the right of the applicant…the cleaning of the flowers was down to pique,” Azzopardi told the court. The next day, Bonnici had simply said that “someone had mentioned pique.”

“What I’m trying to show is that there is a track record of false declarations. For a year and a half in 2017, the government persistently said it called the election over the ‘Egrant lie.’
But in the Public Inquiry, Keith Schembri had admitted that the decision was not related to Egrant”, he said.

“In fact, in November 2016, Henley and Partners already knew an election was coming,” Azzopardi stated, quoting an email exchange about a planned SLAPP lawsuit against Daphne Caruana Galizia and himself.

Bonnici was copied in that email but hadn’t replied or intervened, Azzopardi said.

“While the minister was claiming to be in favour of freedom of expression, he went behind my back and conspired with these foreign lawyers.” 

Azzopardi went on, telling the court that in an interview with Dutch TV in July 2018, Bonnici had said that he would “leave no stone unturned” in finding the culprit for Caruana Galizia’s murder. “At the same time, the Prime Minister was in regular chats with the alleged mastermind, and his Chief of Staff was in chats with him, and ministers in government were thick as thieves with the same assassins.”

Bonnici had also written in the Times that Muscat had dissolved parliament and gone for an election over the Egrant allegations, he said.

The case continues on 15 April.