Court declares Degiorgios’ pre-trial detention is in ‘public interest’

Constitutional Court dismisses rights breach claim by Alfred and George Degiorgio, says continued pre-trial detention is in public interest

Murder suspect George Degiorgio being led out of court after a sitting (James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Murder suspect George Degiorgio being led out of court after a sitting (James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The Constitutional Court has dismissed a breach of rights claim filed by Alfred and George Degiorgio, ruling that their continued pre-trial detention was in the public interest but also that it was for the authorities to ensure that justice is meted out within a reasonable time.

The two brothers are currently awaiting trial as alleged hitmen in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia four years ago. The importance and gravity of the crime they are accused of serve to emphasize the need for government to strengthen resources at the law courts, the Court said.

Such cases bring to the fore the issues of outdated legal procedures, which were causing unnecessary delays in the administration of justice, said the Court.

"There must be no more dragging of feet by the legislator, and radical amendments should be introduced," said Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, presiding the Constitutional Court together with judges Giannino Caruana Demajo and Anthony Ellul.

The judges were deciding an appeal filed by the Degiorgios after a decision by the First Hall, Civil Court in March, which had declared that their fundamental rights were not breached by their repeated denials of bail.

It was the Degiorgio's eighth unsuccessful attempt at being granted release on bail since their arraignment in December 2017, two months after Caruana Galizia's murder in a car bomb explosion in Bidnija.

The first Court had concluded that the denial of bail was justified and that the Degiorgios had suffered no breach of their rights to freedom, fair trial and protection against discrimination.

At the appeal stage before the Constitutional Court, the Degiorgios argued that the reasons given for denying them bail was general and abstract and that none of the legal grounds for continued detention had been proven.

There seemed to be a "quasi-automatic prolongation of detention" that breached their fundamental rights, argued the appellants.

However, the Court pointed out that although four years were a considerable" time, "the circumstances of the case and particularly the reference by the Criminal Court to the "web of criminality" linked to the murder justified the Degiorgios' continued detention.

In the public interest for investigations to continue - Court

It was in the public interest for investigations into the murder to continue without interruption in order for them to find out whether other persons should be charged with crimes linked to Caruana Galizia's assassination.

Journalist's work lies at the heart of any democracy, the Court observed.

"Caruana Galizia was an investigative journalist who wrote about cases concerning alleged corruption involving persons occupying government roles or those close to the government," said the Court.

Not only did the Criminal Court make reference to a "criminal web," but the Degiorgios also implicated a minister and a third party in the murder and other criminal cases in their request for a presidential pardon.

"These allegations are of great concern and obviously need to be investigated," said the Court.

The Court also ruled that it was in the public interest that pending criminal proceedings be given priority in order to ensure that justice is delivered in a reasonable time, bearing in mind the voluminous evidence and lengthy list of pre-trial pleas in this case.

A request for electronic tagging to be considered in the Degiorgios' case in order to alleviate some of the risks involved in granting them bail was declared irrelevant by the Court, as the appellants were not being granted bail.

The Court's greatest fear was that the accused would manage to interfere with the ongoing investigations irrespective of whether they were electronically tagged or not.

The Degiorgios had also claimed inequality of arms as only the AG had a right to appeal a bail decree delivered by the Court of Magistrates.

But the judges highlighted that there was no obstacle to the accused filing as many requests as he wanted before the Criminal Court whenever the records of the case were referred back to the AG's Office.

They pointed out that the Criminal Court had granted them bail in April 2019 with regards to separate money laundering proceedings after their original request had been rejected by the Court of Magistrates.

The Court rejected the appeal and confirmed the initial judgment.

State Advocate Christopher Soler and lawyer Maurizio Cordina represented the State.

Lawyer William Cuschieri assisted the appellants.