Sufficient evidence to indict pensioner accused of threatening magistrate

Police described the 68-year-old habitual offender with a 47-page criminal record as 'a threat to society', saying Valletta was a calmer place after his arrest

An unruly pensioner facing charges of threatening a magistrate is formally indicted after a court rules there are sufficient grounds for the case to proceed.

68-year-old Joseph Zahra stands charged with a total of 10 offences, which include threatening a magistrate in order to discourage her from carrying out her duties and doing the same to several police officers.

During Zahra’s arraignment last month, the court had ordered a ban on the publication of the name of the magistrate he had threatened. In a separate case, Zahra had caused a disturbance outside another magistrate’s courtroom, for which he had been fined €2,000 for contempt of court.

The accused, who appeared in court on crutches today, is well known to the police and has numerous previous convictions, with the court being told that his criminal record is 47 pages long.

Besides threatening the magistrate and police officers, Zahra is also accused of stealing two mobile phones, as well as cash, from a kiosk in Valletta. He is also accused of ignoring legitimate police orders.

Inspector Gabriel Micallef, prosecuting, testified on Thursday, telling the court that Zahra had approached the magistrate’s husband and father in law, both lawyers, in an attempt to influence the outcome of a number of pending cases. 

The police had also investigated this allegation, with Inspector Kevin Pulis arresting Zahra after he had spoken to the magistrate’s husband, who confirmed that the accused had approached him once, several months ago, about pending cases. The lawyer had told Zahra that he could not assist him and had refused to respond to the accused’s further attempts at making contact, said the inspector. 

Inspector Micallef told the court that the accused had confirmed this version of events during his interrogation, where he was assisted by a lawyer. 

A police constable stationed at Valletta testified that on 18 March, he, together with a Sergeant and other colleagues, had responded to a distress call from Hall 11 in the Law Courts, where magistrate Monica Vella was presiding a sitting.

The police had been informed that Zahra was disobeying police orders and had disregarded the magistrate’s demand that he stop interrupting proceedings and maintain order in the courtroom. He had been found in contempt of court twice in that sitting, the court was told.

Zahra was arrested and taken to the Valletta police station, where footage from the officers’ bodycams were also downloaded. The accused had asked to consult with lawyer Leslie Cuschieri.

The inspector had also requested the Principal Security Officer at court to provide recordings of CCTV footage of the corridor outside of the courtroom.

A Zebbug resident, Omar Hussein Mustafa Omar, also took the stand, testifying about a police report he had filed in March about the theft of cash and two mobile phones belonging to him and his friend from outside a kiosk at City Gate.

The men had been seated at a table that they had momentarily left unsupervised. Their phones and some €250 in cash stored in the phone covers had disappeared when they returned. They had been shown CCTV footage by the kiosk owner and recognised the accused.

Police inspector Kurt Farrugia also testified today, telling the court that the accused was clearly aware of the CCTV cameras and had tried to evade detection by walking in and out of frame, around the table. Although Zahra didn’t appear in the shot showing the moment that the mobile phones were stolen, his sleeve was, he said.

During his interrogation, Zahra had asked to be allowed to ask the victims’ forgiveness and that he was ready to return the stolen devices. He was told that this would not stop the charges from being issued.

The mobile phones have not yet been recovered, added the witness.

Defence counsel, Peter Paul Zammit, requested bail for Zahra, pointing out that the only remaining civilian witness had failed to appear for today’s sitting, for which the witness was fined €50.

Zammit also objected to the prosecution’s requested appointment of a court expert to extract stills from the CCTV footage, saying that these were expenses that his client could not afford.

The defence argued that the police had been in possession of the recordings for a long time and could have carried out the work themselves. Experts should not be appointed where they are not required to draw conclusions, Zammit added.

After hearing the arguments by both prosecution and defence, Magistrate Farrugia upheld the prosecution’s request, ordering that the downloads of still images and footage from police body cams be carried out by an expert. 

The accused would only have to pay for the expenses related to the case if he was found guilty, added the court, saying that it could not understand the defences’ preoccupation with suffering costs when the defendant was pleading not guilty.

The case was adjourned to May.