Drugs case that sparked inquiry on ministers will be heard again

Gozo cocaine trafficking case that sparked government inquiry into MaltaToday report on ministerial interference, will be heard again

Kevin Vella (left) was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2017 but his case will be heard again after an Appeals Court decision. Zael Vella (right) was supposed to be investigated for perjury by the police on instruction of Magistrate Joseph Mifsud
Kevin Vella (left) was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2017 but his case will be heard again after an Appeals Court decision. Zael Vella (right) was supposed to be investigated for perjury by the police on instruction of Magistrate Joseph Mifsud

A cocaine trafficking case that prompted a government inquiry over a MaltaToday report of ministerial interference, will be heard again after the first court’s judgement was struck down as invalid.

The Gozo courts will retry the case against Kevin Vella, convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2017, after the Court of Criminal Appeal struck down the judgement to be sent back to the court of magistrates to be heard again.

The case is set to start in Gozo next month.

In September 2017, Kevin Vella was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined €1,000 for trafficking cocaine at a party at Mgarr ix-Xini back in June 2013.

Vella had been arrested after CID police officers spotted two men carrying the motionless body of Zael Vella uphill. As the officers approached him, Vella immediately refused their assistance and rushed to the driver’s seat, pulled out a plastic bag which he threw out into the fields nearby. Stopped by the police, they intercepted the bag with nine small sachets of cocaine.

In handing down judgment, then presiding magistrate Joe Mifsud ordered that Kevin Vella’s girlfriend, Zael Vella, be investigated for perjury after she retracted part of a police statement which she had previously confirmed on oath in court.

But that investigation was never pursued by the Maltese police, because Vella was appealing the court decision.

In the appeals court’s judgement, Magistrate Giovanni Grixti said the first court had not made any decision on two charges for possession and trafficking of ecstasy, while the reference to cocaine was in the context “trafficking by sharing” rather than for gain or sale.

“Nowhere does it appear that the prosecution was withdrawing any of these charges,” said the judge. “Therefore, as a result, the sentence appealed is missing a substantial formality consisting of a lack of consideration and a decision on two of the seven charges filed against the accused.” The judge consequently declared the sentence null and without effect, pointing out that if the court of Criminal Appeal were to decide on the missing charges, it would be depriving the accused of his right to appeal.

Instead, the judge sent the case back to the Court of Magistrates to be heard again from the beginning, according to law. That case will begin next month.

Ministerial interference inquiry

The case had sparked an investigation by MaltaToday into allegations that relatives of the accused had met two Labour ministers at the Gozo ministry, to discuss the case. But a government inquiry – discredited by the Nationalist Opposition at the time – had found no proof of interference.

MaltaToday had reported that home affairs minister Manuel Mallia was allegedly escorted to the Gozo ministry in October 2013, at around 10:30pm, where he is believed to have met the father of a youth from Munxar, caught in the possession of drugs. The parent was seen entering the building of the Gozo ministry at around 11pm, having told bystanders that he was there to talk to both Mallia and Gozo minister Anton Refalo. He left the building at around 1:30am.

Both ministers denied any knowledge about the case.

Subsequently, Zael Vella had accepted to change her original statement, to say her friend had not supplied her with drugs.

Both Gozo minister Anton Refalo and the former home affairs minister at the time, now competitiveness minister Manuel Mallia, have denied knowledge of the case and political involvement.

An inquiry, led by lawyer John Vassallo, launched at the request of prime minister Joseph Muscat, concluded no such interference took place. Vassallo – a former Labour candidate – made no reference to the testimonies of both Refalo and Mallia, who appeared before the board.

The Nationalist Party dubbed the conclusions “whitewash” and “a cover-up”, arguing that the board even failed to call in the ministers’ drivers, the security detail, all police officers involved in the investigation and Gozo shadow minister Chris Said to testify.

“I have no doubt that this inquiry is a farce, appointed by the Prime Minister intended to hide everything. The inquiry has failed to send for a number of persons who have been identified by MaltaToday to give their version of events, under oath.”

Perjury investigation

Zael Vella had been conditionally discharged for six months in 2013 for her part in the crime, after police declared that she had cooperated fully with the investigation and was eligible for a reduction in punishment.

But the court also expressed its surprise at the defence’s declaration that Zael Vella had “not taken an oath over everything”. In his decision, Magistrate Mifsud had said that if a witness retracts part of his or her sworn statement when giving testimony or being cross-examined, this did not mean that the declaration could no longer be taken as evidence against the accused, pointing out that a judge could still reach the conclusion that the truth lies in the sworn statement and not courtroom testimony.

Mifsud stated that he was convinced that the girl had only been telling the truth in the statement taken immediately after her arrest, and that she had then tried to explain away her account in subsequent sittings by saying she had still been suffering from a hangover at the time.

The details given in the statement did not correspond to a person who was not in her right mind, and had been taken 10 hours after her arrest after her hangover had passed, the court had said.

Mifsud concluded that Zael Vella had seen Kevin Vella while under the effect of cocaine, as confirmed in her initial statement, and that he had trafficked drugs for a time as well as shared ecstasy pills and cannabis joints with her for free.

In her initial police statement, Zael Vella had mentioned Chris ‘il-Barri’ Vella, Mark ‘iz-Zuzu’, Samuel Sillatto and George Attard, whom she said Kevin Vella would give free drugs to. But she later told the inquiring magistrate that she was retracting this part of her statement.

Magistrate Mifsud had ordered the Commissioner of Police to investigate Zael Vella on suspicion that she had given false testimony and to prosecute her if this is found to be true. He also gave instructions for the criminal investigation of the individuals mentioned by the girl in her initial statement and to immediately prosecute them if necessary.