Magistrate withdraws from compilation hearings in murder cases involving Agius brothers

The compilation of evidence against brothers Adrian and Robert Agius, known as Tal-Maksar, and their associates Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio will have to be heard by a new magistrate after a request for recusal was accepted by the court

Robert Agius (left) and Adrian Agius (right) being led out of court after being arraigned in February. (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Robert Agius (left) and Adrian Agius (right) being led out of court after being arraigned in February. (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Magistrate Nadine Lia has withdrawn from hearing the compilation of evidence against Adrian Agius, his brother Robert Agius, and their associates Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio.

The men are facing charges of involvement in two murders, including that of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Parte civile lawyer for the Caruana Galizia family, Jason Azzopardi, requested the magistrate's recusal at the start of the sitting for the same reasons that the same magistrate had withdrawn from hearing the Yorgen Fenech case.

After nearly three hours of deliberation, Lia decreed that although there was nothing at law requiring her to recuse herself, in the best interest of justice and given the sensitivity of the case, she was withdrawing. Lia is married to a lawyer who is the son of Paul Lia, a lawyer who provided services to the Labour Party and is also Joseph Muscat's attorney.

The case will now have to be assigned to a different magistrate and the decision is expected on Monday.

Last week, Magistrate Marse-Anne Farrugia recused herself from hearing the compilation of evidence against the four men since she was involved in the magisterial inquiry into Carmel Chircop’s murder.

Robert Agius and Jamie Vella are charged with supplying the bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017.

Adrian Agius is charged with commissioning the murder of lawyer Carmel Chircop in 2015. Vella and Degiorgio are charged with executing Chircop’s assassination in a garage complex in Birkirkara.

Degiorgio is currently undergoing separate procedures for his involvement in the Caruana Galizia murder.

The Agius brothers, known as Tal-Maksar, and Vella had long been suspected of having been the bomb suppliers in the Caruana Galizia murder case. They had been arrested in December 2017 but later released with no charge.

They were arrested a fortnight ago on the same day that Vince Muscat, known as il-Koħħu, admitted his involvement in the Caruana Galizia murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison following a plea bargain agreement.

Muscat collaborated with the police and was also given a presidential pardon to tell all about the Chircop murder.

13:18 That is all for today. Thank you for following. A summary of proceedings will follow shortly. Kurt Sansone
13:15 The case will now have to be heard by another magistrate. Kurt Sansone
13:15 The magistrate says that she feels that to maintain consistency, she will abstain from hearing the case. After delivering her decree, the magistrate leaves the courtroom immediately. Kurt Sansone
13:14 Magistrate Lia says there are no grounds for her to recuse herself, but felt that such a sensitive case should be treated as such. Kurt Sansone
13:13 The abstention is requested on the basis of the fact that the court is married to a lawyer who is in turn related by blood to a lawyer who provided services to a political party. With reference to the Yorgen Fenech case, the magistrate says that although Supt Arnaud had not objected to her presence, this time he was. Kurt Sansone
13:10 Not every suspicion of partiality is enough to warrant recusal, she says. Lia quotes from a sentence given by Judge Lawrence Mintoff in the Dragonforge case, which says the duty of the judge is to decide the case. “We live in a politically polarised society and it would be a mistake to project this in abstracto on the courts,” she says. “Although the court does not operate in a vacuum, the court does not descend into political partisanship,” she adds. Kurt Sansone
13:02 She says that the request for recusal made in 2019 was because the magistrate was married to a lawyer with a relationship with the party in front of her. Kurt Sansone
13:01 “None of these apply to this case,” the magistrate says. She adds that there is also the subjective/objective test and quotes from European case law in English. Kurt Sansone
13:01 The reasons for recusal listed at law include being a blood relative or through marriage, a nephew or uncle, tutor, heir or procurator, had already pronounced himself publicly about the merits of the witness, or have a direct/indirect interest in the case… Kurt Sansone
12:57 The magistrate chides the parte civile for making the request at the first sitting when the prosecution had prepared evidence. There is no disposition of the law regulating this particular situation and consequently the decision should be made by the magistrate. She reads the law regulating the procedure for the recusal of a magistrate. Kurt Sansone
12:56 Parte civile lawyer Jason Azzopardi gently shakes his head in disagreement. Kurt Sansone
12:56 The magistrate notes that the choice of magistrates is done by blind ballot. The parties had every opportunity to contact the Registrar of Courts and ask to disqualify magistrates prior to the ballot. None of the parties had objected to the pool of magistrates in this way. This would have avoided useless delays, especially in such a delicate matter. Kurt Sansone
12:55 The magistrate is back inside and the sitting begins. Magistrate Nadine Lia reads her decree. Kurt Sansone
12:54 The Agius brothers are led out now. All the accused are talking to their lawyers. Kurt Sansone
12:54 Armed guards re-enter the courtroom, as well as the lawyers and the accused. Vincent Muscat, who pleaded guilty in the Caruana Galizia murder case and was given a pardon for the Chircop case, is speaking with his lawyer. Kurt Sansone
12:53 We are back in court. Kurt Sansone
10:02 QUICK RECAP: We are sitting for the compilation of evidence against brothers Adrian and Robert Agius, known as Tal-Maksar, Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio. Adrian Agius, Vella and Degiorgio are charged with involvement in the murder of lawyer Carmel Chircop in 2015. Robert Agius and Vella are charged with supplying the bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. At the start of the sitting, lawyer Jason Azzopardi, representing the Caruana Galizia family, asked Magistrate Nadine Lia to recuse herself on the same grounds she had withdrawn from presiding the Yorgen Fenech compilation in December 2019. We are now waiting for the magistrate to deliver her decree. Magistrate Marse-Ann Farrugia, last week also recused herself from hearing the case since she was the inquiring magistrate in the Chircop murder case. Kurt Sansone
09:44 The court postpones the sitting, retiring to chambers to write her decree. Kurt Sansone
09:43 Finally, Cuschieri argues that he does not feel it is right that it is the parte civile that “chooses” the presiding magistrate in this compilation for reasons which are entirely extraneous to the proceedings against his client. The lawyer says he has full trust in this court. Kurt Sansone
09:43 Cuschieri adds that in his particular case, the grounds on which a recusal can be requested are exhaustive. He continues that the doctrines cited by the other party relating to the Strasbourg court cases, do not apply to the charges which George Degiorgio is answering to. “Whether or not there is a breach of a fundamental right is up to the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional Jurisdiction after a reference is made to it by this court, to decide,” he says. Kurt Sansone
09:40 Cuschieri: “Besides this, and without prejudice to the foregoing, as resulting from the charges themselves, George Degiorgio is completely extraneous to any accusations relating to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which homicide he is already undergoing criminal proceedings, both before this court and the Criminal Court.” Kurt Sansone
09:38 Lawyer William Cuschieri objects to the request. He says the charges against his client, George Degiorgio, are all about the murder of Carmel Chircop and therefore the reasons given by the parte civile have nothing to do with, and do not impinge on these charges. Kurt Sansone
09:36 Arnaud says he endorses Camilleri's arguments. Defence lawyer Alfred Abela declares he has full trust in the court. Kurt Sansone
09:36 George Camilleri for the AG stands up. “In view of the request of the parte civile, whilst the prosecution declares absolute trust in the impartiality of this honourable court, at the same time, makes reference to the decree previously cited, given by this court as presided on 3 December 2019 in the case Police vs Yorgen Fenech and all that was decreed, in particular to the teaching cited by this court of the case De Cuber vs Belgium. Therefore, the AG humbly submits himself to the judgment of the court.” Kurt Sansone
09:34 At this stage, the court invites the parties in these proceedings to make any declarations in connection with this request. Kurt Sansone
09:34 Azzopardi: “For these reasons, the parte civile, always with the greatest respect to the court, repeats its request for recusal so that justice is seen to be done.” Kurt Sansone
09:33 Lastly, Azzopardi says that the request for recusal also reflects the principle that justice must be done and be seen to be done, “particularly when in 30-days’ time this court must take a vital decision”. Kurt Sansone
09:32 Defence lawyer William Cuschieri enters the courtroom and sits down next to the other lawyers. Kurt Sansone
09:32 Azzopardi adds that the request for recusal was also based on the reasoning leading to the recusal of the inquiring magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera (now judge) in October 2017, when she refrained from handling the Caruana Galizia murder inquiry. Kurt Sansone
09:30 Azzopardi continues that the request is also on line with the very correct reasoning and thinking of the same court when it abstained from presiding the case Police vs Paul Bailey (2019), and in line with jurisprudence in the case Micallef vs Malta (2009) and Sandro Chetcuti vs Attorney General, which was a case before the constitutional court. Kurt Sansone
09:29 He corrects himself – “3 December 2019, not 4 December 2017.” Kurt Sansone
09:28 Azzopardi: “This is being requested not and in no way as a reflection on the personal integrity of the magistrate, but in line with the decree of the same magistrate of the 4 December 2017, in the case Police vs Yorgen Fenech, where that day this magistrate had accepted the invitation of the parte civile for reasons which had been laid out in an application filed that day.” Kurt Sansone
09:25 Azzopardi for the Caruana Galizia family invites the magistrate “to humbly” consider recusing herself from presiding this compilation of evidence. Kurt Sansone
09:23 Lawyer Jason Azzopardi makes a request to the court. Kurt Sansone
09:23 The magistrate asks how the prosecution will proceed. Supt Arnaud says he will be presenting evidence and will not be asking for prima facie today. Kurt Sansone
09:22 Lawyer Alfred Abela informs the court that he and Rene Darmanin are appearing for the Agius brothers and Jamie Vella. George Degiorgio is represented by lawyer WIlliam Cuschieri, who is not present this morning. Col. Alexander Dalli, the prisons director, is asked to confirm the medical certificate presented for Vella. Vella is unable to attend court as he is under mandatory COVID-19 quarantine till 11 March. Kurt Sansone
09:20 QUICK REMINDER: Adrian Agius, Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio stand are charged with murdering lawyer Carmel Chircop in 2015. Police believe Agius was the mastermind of the Chircop’s assassination. Robert Agius and Jamie Vella are accused of supplying the bomb that killed journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. Degiorgio is already facing separate proceedings for his involvement in the Caruana Galizia murder. Kurt Sansone
09:18 The court asks lawyer Jason Azzopardi to file a note to declare himself as parte civile lawyer for the Daphne Caruana Galizia family. Kurt Sansone
09:17 Arnaud and Pawney arrive. The sitting begins. There is nobody here, so far, representing Carmel Chircop's family. Kurt Sansone
09:17 The accused, brothers Adrian and Robert Agius, and George Degiorgio are in court. The other accused, Jamie Vella, is not present because he is recovering from COVID-19. Kurt Sansone
09:11 The courtroom is as silent as a tomb as we wait for the police to turn up. Kurt Sansone
09:10 Magistrate Nadine Lia is presiding. Lawyer George Camilleri is representing the Attorney General in the proceedings. Kurt Sansone
09:09 Superintendent Keith Arnaud and Inspector Shawn Pawney are still on their way to the courts, we are informed. Kurt Sansone
09:08 The magistrate has just come into the courtroom. She asks for the prosecution, but the prosecutors have not yet arrived in court. Lawyers Alfred Abela and Rene Darmanin are defence counsel. Lawyer Jason Azzopardi is parte civile. Kurt Sansone
09:07 Good morning. Kurt Sansone