Shop owner fined €3,000 over Facebook threat to Repubblika's Robert Aquilina

The owner of a Valletta clothes shop, who told the president of NGO Repubblika to 'be afraid when alone in Valletta' on Facebook, will be filing an appeal after he was fined €3,000

Repubblika president Robert Aquilina
Repubblika president Robert Aquilina

The owner of a Valletta clothes shop, who told the president of NGO Repubblika to “be afraid when alone in Valletta” on Facebook, will be filing an appeal after he was fined €3,000 by a court today.

Joseph Camenzuli of Mosta, who owns a clothes shop near parliament, was summoned before magistrate Astrid May Grima in a Valletta district sitting on Monday morning on charges related to threats he made under a Facebook post by Robert Aquilina.

Using a fake Facebook profile under the name “Mario Borg,” Camenzuli had written that “we are staying quiet until you make us angry…and you have already bothered me in Valletta and let me tell you, start being afraid when you’re alone in Valletta.”

Aquilina told the court that posts of this nature had led him to need police protection.

FCID police inspector Michael Vella, who investigated the case, testified about the incident which occurred on 23 March.

Aquilina had published a post on Facebook, and Camenzuli had commented beneath it, said the inspector. After investigating, the police Cybercrime Unit informed the inspector that the post had been sent from a mobile phone with Camenzuli’s number. Camenzuli was subsequently called to the police station and questioned, where he had immediately admitted to writing the post and confirmed that the mobile phone number was his.

During questioning, he had also admitted and signed a statement admitting to creating the fake profile. Camenzuli had claimed that it was posted in the heat of the moment because the protests in November were affecting his business. He said he had no intention of harming Aquilina.

The inspector also exhibited a judgment dated 21 June 2014 where the accused had been fined €250 for what his lawyer described as a “traffic offence.”

Robert Aquilina was also summoned to the witness stand. He had filed a report on 23 March 2021 about the post. He read out Camenzuli’s post and exhibited a copy.

Lawyer David Gatt, appearing for Camenzuli, asked whether Aquilina had ever met the accused or seen him in public. He hadn’t, he said. Gatt argued that the last part of the post was subject to interpretation and the rest of it was a political comment. Aquilina insisted that it was a “clear threat.”

An officer from the police cybercrime unit also testified, saying he had been requested to investigate a Facebook profile. Initial investigations revealed the profile to be fake. The police had filed an urgent request for more information to Facebook, which provided a list of IP addresses used to access the fake account. The IP address was a Melita one, and Facebook had provided the police with the mobile phone number used to authenticate the account. After several requests by the police, Melita had told the police that it had no information related to those IP addresses, as they were dynamic IPs.

The Cybercrime officer exhibited his report on the post and the fake profile.

Gatt pointed out that many posts by “Mario Borg” were listed on the report. There are many Mario Borgs, argued the lawyer, asking if the comments in the report were all by the same person. The court clarified the question asking whether the IP address belonged to Camenzuli. He said that Melita did not tell them this as they were dynamic IPs, but the fake account's mobile phone number provided to Facebook belonged to the accused.

The accused testified, answering a question by his lawyer, that he had “nothing at all against Aquilina.” “Obviously, I wrote it in the full context…I wrote something small that he interpreted as a threat.”

Gatt asked him about his shop. “There were many protests, and we have families; everyone was angry and speaking about this individual. We all saw them beating up the police…” he said, at which point Aquilina shook his head and said "no no no."

Gatt suggested that the post was about the protests. It was, repeated the accused. He also confirmed that the post was his and apologised.  “I am never going to raise a hand to this person, ma tarax.”

His lawyer asked him what he meant by “be afraid in Valletta.” “I heard many people speaking out against him in Valletta. It was a warning.”

Comodini Cachia submitted that the man’s testimony was worrying. His ‘spontaneous’ post was about a protest that happened months before; she pointed out. “When he insisted today that everyone there is speaking against Aquilina, shows no sudden passion but hatred that has been building up over time. This was also clear from the creation of a fake profile. A friendly warning is not delivered by a fake profile with these words,” she said. The intention was not friendly but to cause fear, and this was clear from the words used, argued the lawyer. Cachia asked the court to provide for the security of the complainant.

Gatt argued that the democratic right to protest was also accompanied by a right to work. The accused had no business for three days during the Repubblika protests, he said. The accused had heard other shop owners complaining about Aquilina, suggested the lawyer, arguing that the post consisted of “fair political comment.” “He expressed his sadness, God forbid that it is a crime to express one’s feelings,” argued Gatt, adding that Camenzuli’s previous conviction was for a traffic offence.

In a separate case last October, another man had been conditionally discharged and fined over online threats directed at Aquilina and his brother, Opposition MP Karol Aquilina.

The court, after hearing the evidence, found him guilty of all charges bar recidivism. Camenzuli was fined €3,000. Magistrate Grima issued an order not to approach Aquilina against a penalty of €2,000 and issued a three-year protection order in favour of the victim.

Gatt gave notice of appeal.

Lawyer David Gatt was defence counsel to Camenzuli.

Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia appeared for Aquilina.

Inspector Michael Vella prosecuted.