Former minister, MSS chief quizzed over phone taps’ legality in Pips trafficking case

Lawyer for accused drug trafficker Charles Muscat ‘il-Pips’ attacks process behind phone tap in constitutional case on legality of Security Service intercepts

Charles Muscat was arrested in 2001 in connection with the importation of a considerable amount of cocaine and cannabis, after a surveillance operation run in tandem by MSS and the police.
Charles Muscat was arrested in 2001 in connection with the importation of a considerable amount of cocaine and cannabis, after a surveillance operation run in tandem by MSS and the police.

The former head of the Malta Security Service (MSS) and a former minister have given evidence in a constitutional case filed by Charles Muscat, known as il-Pips, on the use of phone taps as evidence against him.

Muscat was arrested in 2001 in connection with the importation of a considerable amount of cocaine and cannabis, after a surveillance operation run in tandem by MSS and the police.

Muscat is contesting the validity of the phone taps, arguing that legal safeguards imposed by the EU were “completely ignored” and that the law as it stood, permitted this type of monitoring with the consent of the minister for home affairs and without any judicial scrutiny.

Former Nationalist minister for home affairs Tonio Borg, testified before the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction on Thursday.

“They [MSS] would come to me and ask me to issue a warrant. I would check it for conformity with the law and then sign it, together with the Prime Minister,” Borg told Mr Justice Toni Abela yesterday.

“I would be asked only by MSS. The police wouldn’t come to me, they would go to MSS who would then come to me... The decision process also involved a committee made up of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, the Head of MSS and others,” he said when asked by Muscat’s lawyer, Franco Debono, what the process entailed.

Criminal defence lawyer Franco Debono
Criminal defence lawyer Franco Debono

“The head of MSS would send someone to me and I would sign and keep a copy in my safe,” Borg said, adding that this was always done in writing. “I would check whether they tried to obtain the information through other means before resorting to phone taps.”

Debono asked Borg what the application would contain. “It would contain the name, address, reasons for the request and so on. There were times I refused,” Borg said.

Queried as to whether applications were refused, Borg replied that “when I saw there wasn’t a good enough reason, I would refuse.”

Borg would not give reasons for accepting the warrant, but said there was a form of judicial review by the Commissioner of Police who would come and review all the warrants, after they were issued. “But before it is issued, it is only the minister who decides.”

Borg said he didn’t remember whether he would always give reasons in writing for upholding or rejecting the request, explaining that it “depended on the situation as he perceived it at the time.”

Borg said the request form was placed with the warrant in the minister’s safe, but added that he wasn’t completely sure of this point, as a lot of time had passed.

Retired judge Frank Camilleri, who was appointed Commissioner for the Security Service, would deal with complaints and investigate them, Borg added.

Presiding judge Toni Abela asked what law the Security Services Act was based on. Principally English law, replied Borg. “What we took from English law was that the warrant was issued ex post facto with the right to review by a retired judge.”

Herbert Agius, the retired former head of MSS, was also summoned to testify. Agius told the court that he had been Head of MSS in 2001, and that it was the MSS that would request a warrant from the minister.

“We would have gathered sufficient information to suspect illegal activity, then we would go to the minister and get his approval for tapping. The process would be that we would compile a written report of our suspicions, would inform the minister and then send the report to the minister. If he saw sufficient reasons, he would uphold the request.”

Answering Debono, Agius said that the minister had never refused such a request during his time in the position.

Debono asked the former Security Service chief how long the process would take. This differed from case to case, Agius explained. “Oftentimes it would be at night and they would have to go find where he [the minister] was and then call me.”

Debono asked that he be given another court date to definitively close his evidence in the next sitting. The court made it clear that the next sitting would be the last one for the plaintiff’s evidence. The case will continue in January next year.

Charles ‘Pips’ Muscat

Charles Muscat, known as il-Pips, had been, along with 18 others, accused with conspiracy to traffic drugs based on phone calls intercepted by the Maltese Security Service.

Muscat gained notoriety during the 1990s, eventually being sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment in 1999 for a cocaine-fuelled double homicide.

He was subsequently granted early release in 2011 for good behaviour.

The case in question, however, dates back to December 2001, when drug squad police uncovered an operation to import a considerable amount of cocaine and cannabis from the Netherlands. The police investigation was helped by the MSS, which had been tapping telephone calls connected to the alleged drug importation plan.

During the course of the investigation, it emerged that Muscat, who at the time was an inmate at Corradino prison, had been talking with certain people over the supply of large quantities of drugs.

Muscat was subsequently arraigned in court on charges relating to conspiracy, importation, trafficking and possession of drugs.