George Degiorgio awarded €10,000 over unauthorised phone taps

Daphne murder suspect George Degiorgio awarded €10,000 after judge rules privacy breach over unauthorised phone taps  

George Degiorgio
George Degiorgio

George Degiorgio has been awarded €10,000 in compensation after a judge ruled that his right to private and family life was breached by unauthorised phone taps.

Mr. Justice Toni Abela upheld the complaint with regards to the privacy issue, but not with regards to his complaint of breach of fair trial rights.

Degiorgio’s lawyer William Cuschieri had challenged the authorities to produce telephone intercepts that the prosecution had “bragged about” throughout the compilation of evidence.

According to Maltese law, the Malta Security Services is responsible for phone taps and it can only do so after obtaining a warrant signed by the Prime Minister or Home Affairs Minister. 

Investigators were listening to Degiorgio’s phone calls eight months before Caruana Galizia was assassinated, as they suspected him of being involved in other crimes, the court heard.

The intercepts had led the police to Degiorgio, his brother Alfred Degiorgio and Vincent Muscat, as the alleged murderers.

Cuschieri had requested that the Head of the Malta Security Services, the Commissioner of Police and Inspector Keith Arnaud testify in the constitutional case over the warrant issue.

Remarking about the failure of the Head of MSS to exhibit the phone tap warrant, the judge said that “not even had he wanted to, the Head of the Security Services could not exhibit this warrant relating to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. This is because there was no warrant. In the first place, the request made to the defendant Head (of MSS) by the defendant Commissioner of Police could not have been related to the murder with which the applicant is being accused.

“The request by the defendant Commissioner was made in February 2017 when the murder took place a good 8 months later!” The court further said that there was no evidence to show that the police were suspecting that the applicant was planning to commit this crime at that time.

“If on the other hand there was some form of warrant that was issued in February 2017, then this had expired. The Head of the Security Services himself testified that the warrant was for the duration of 6 months.”

The judge observed that in the September 2020 judgment Republic v George Degiorgio the court had noted.

“It is all too clear that that which the Inspector testified meant that the phone belonging to George Degiorgio had been under observation  before the explosion of the vehicle in which Caruana Galizia was. The inferences that can be taken from these depositions are many, however, apart from this, once the warrant authorising the interceptions can no longer be exhibited, much less the alleged recording which the inspector testified about, then why should this court permit that these declarations be made before the jurors?”

The decision of that court to expunge the recordings from the acts of the case neutralised some of the applicant’s complaints, said the court.

“From an examination of our law this court reaches the conclusion that this is lacking in the elements underlined, particularly about the way the information is communicated. The case before this court is a classic one. Not only was there no warrant, but the Commissioner of Police doesn’t appear to know what was happening.”

With regards to the defendant Commissioner of Police, the court referred again to Arnaud’s testimony. Arnaud had testified that MSS had first played the call to him and then he had asked them for a copy to play to the applicant during his interrogation. When asked whether he had looked into whether or not there was a warrant, he said it was not his job to do so. “He didn’t ask if there was a warrant, rather he says that he was informed that there was a warrant, although this court established that this was not the case.

“In his testimony the Commissioner of Police stayed beating around the bush. He makes it clear that the only report made to the Security Services was on 20 February 2017. This means that the controls should have been made by the Security Services and not the Commissioner of Police. Therefore the court will be non-suiting the Commissioner of Police.”

With regards to the breach of the presumption of innocence due to prejudicial pre-trial publicity, the judge said this did not occur.

“The large part of these publications, although they could have avoided some of the ‘colour’ (“boasting”…”celebrate”…”tefa’ l-gebla fuq saqajh”), it cannot be said that they amount to a virulent publicity campaign,” said the judge, adding that neither could the continuous showing of the photo of the applicant cause prejudice.

“In a democratic society it is inevitable that there will be certain comments, even if severe, that appear in the press, prompted by public interest.”

“Crimes are what they are, but particularly homicides, more so of public persons, cannot be placed in a protective bubble. It is inevitable that they will foment heated discussions amongst the public. Should everything that appears in the press, even if severe - to be considered as breaching the principle of the presumption of innocence, we would be opening a door to the manipulation of proceedings…” said the judge, explaining that an accused person could potentially instigate a public press campaign against him, to allow him to claim a breach of his presumption of innocence.

“On the other hand, prudence and reason are to guide the press. This must not exceed the limits of decency as it could open itself up to not only libel but also to being the cause of breaches of article 6 and…8 (of the European Convention on Human Rights).”

The judge quoted comments on the topic of local and European jurisprudence about the presumption of innocence and the media made by Prof. Giuseppe Mifsud Bonnici.

“If the public is so gullible as to believe whatever is said by a public authority which is not even a judicial authority, so be it. All the media could have joined in casting the accused as guilty but this, once again, although not commendable in any way, still does not amount to a breach of the presumption of innocence, as it is presumed at least juris tantum, that an independent and impartial Court cannot be taken out of its path of dealing and conducting the trial in a fair and impartial manner,” the professor had said.

Mr. Justice Abela found no breach of fair trial rights in this case, but found a breach of Degiorgio’s rights to private and family life and awarded him €10,000, to be paid by the State Advocate and the Head of the Malta Security Services.

Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà, who was also targeted by the suit, was cleared with the court ruling that he had no case to answer to.

Lawyer William Cuschieri appeared for Degiorgio.