Magistrate orders immediate release of inmate who spent seven extra months in jail

Court administration error leads to inmate spending an extra seven months in prison after serving his sentence

File photo
File photo

A magistrate has ordered the immediate release of a man who spent an extra seven months in prison after serving his sentence, due to an administrative error.

Mohamed Korouma, 43, from the Ivory Coast had been charged with conspiracy to import cocaine and heroin in 2011 and was later released on bail. In the meantime, he was also convicted of possession of a small amount of drugs. The sentence was reduced on appeal.

But despite having served that sentence, the prisoner was not released in view of an apparent mistake by the court administration which flagged him to the prison authorities as ineligible for bail in view of the fact that he was charged with breaching bail.

His lawyers, Jose Herrera and David Camilleri filed habeas corpus proceedings, claiming his arrest was illegal. They argued forcefully for his immediate release as the urgent case was called before magistrate Nadine Lia this afternoon.

Herrera told magistrate Nadine Lia that by a judgement given last September by the Court of Criminal Appeal, he was found guilty of, amongst other things, of breaching his bail conditions relating to his other pending criminal proceedings. However, the judgement did not revoke his bail, pointed out the lawyer, arguing that his client should never have been re-arrested.

The Criminal Courts’ Deputy Registrar, took the stand and told the court that the man had been detained in view of the fact that he was charged with breaching bail. The fines imposed in the 2021 judgement by the Court of Criminal Appeal for drugs and breach of bail had not yet been paid.

Herrera argued that the fines had not yet been converted to imprisonment and that this required a separate action.

Herrera said the de facto revocation of bail was a “heresy,” arguing that only a court could revoke someone’s bail. “Since when is the registrar a judge?” He asked whether the fine and costs were converted to imprisonment. They had not been, replied the witness.

Herrera cross-examined the court official, showing her a copy of the appeal judgement.

She confirmed it was genuine and pointed out the charge of breach of bail. “Can you indicate where the court revoked his bail?” interrupted the lawyer, angrily.

The court intervened several times, stopping the lawyer from interrupting the witness during her testimony.

The prison director relied on a document, referred to as a ticket, she explained. “The ticket in itself is correct, but besides that they asked me for a second ticket - and this is something I disagreed with- when there is a breach or revocation of bail you don’t need to make a second ticket. This ticket was issued subsequent to the handing down of the sentence.”

In the original ticket there was no mention of any order that the accused was to be remanded in custody, said the witness.

“I knew that he had been on bail and I happened to be the deputy registrar for judge Grixti where we saw other acts in which Mr. Korouna was on bail…there is another case in which he is on bail,” said the court official.

“In the other case he is accused of breaching bail and it is not decided yet. Bail was not revoked,” barked Herrera in response.

“This action was filed, practically on the suggestion of judge Grixti, when we filed a bail application and it was discovered that our client was already on bail.”

The registrar insisted that she had always argued that the breach of bail should be included on the same prison ticket, but said that she was ignored.

Prison official Helenio Galea took the witness stand next. He explained that on 24 November 2020 the man had been delivered to prison with a police escort. Korouna was delivered together with two tickets, one stating that he had been jailed for three years and fined. But the escorting officers had also delivered another ticket from the registrar of courts, for the breach of bail, stating that the man’s bail had been revoked.

The court pointed out that although there were two documents, relating to his court cases, both of which mentioned the breach of bail. “The first case is not yet decided and he is currently on bail in connection with it, the second case states that bail was revoked.”

Herrera argued that this was an administrative error on the part of the registrar of courts.

The document quoted by Galea was an administrative document, not an official court judgement, he said.

The magistrate further pointed out that there was a document issued by the court administration stating that the accused had no pending compilations of evidence against him. Both parties agreed that it was incorrect.

Herrera explained that in the man’s second case, he was found guilty for breaching bail and was jailed for this. He had served this sentence, argued the lawyer. “The other ticket was issued by mistake as the deputy registrar presumed that the consequences of conviction of breaching bail was the automatic revocation of bail.”

However, the law had changed and the magistrate now has a choice to either revoke bail or take other measures, Herrera submitted.

“He’s spent seven months in custody unnecessarily,” said the lawyer. “The sentence refers to the other pending case, for drug trafficking, which is still in the compilation stage.”

Galea agreed, but protested that he had no power to release the accused.

Lawyer Mario Mifsud, representing the prison administration dictated a joint note together with Herrera, explaining that there were still pending compilation proceedings ongoing, and that in this case, the accused had been granted bail.

Herrera said the arrest was “manifestly illegal.” “It is a clear mistake on the part of the courts. For this mistake he spent seven months in prison unnecessarily. All I care about is the man’s release,” said the lawyer.

Mario Mifsud said that the prison wanted to make things clear that the prison uses the ticket as the order to keep a person in custody. In view of the second ticket we had to keep him under arrest until it is revoked.

There was a reform of the law two years ago, Herrera submitted. The punishment for breaching bail is now a separate prison sentence, not the revocation of bail. “It’s not on. It’s very grave.”

Lawyer Ylenia Abela, appearing for the Office of the Attorney General, confirmed in court that, contrary to information given by the court administration, there was an ongoing compilation of evidence against the accused.

These dated back to a time before court proceedings were tied to ID card numbers, the court was told.

Lawyer Mario Mifsud addressed the court, arguing that the prison director had no fault in this case. Prison used a system of tickets for admission or release, he explained.

“In this particular case, the prison authorities first saw that Karouma had been released and at that precise moment received another ticket saying that he was being remanded for breach of bail.”

Under the old system the courts were obliged to revoke bail for any breaches, explained the prison lawyer.

Herrera quipped that this was a “rare occasion” where he agreed completely with the other side. “It appears there was a human error and the law had changed,” said the lawyer. There was no revocation of bail and the only remedy available to him was habeas corpus, an action to declare arrest illegal, he went on.

“The unfortunate thing is that my client spent seven months in prison for nothing.”

Herrera, who explained that he had been engaged as the man’s legal representative just three days ago, told the court that the error was discovered after a bail application was filed in other proceedings and the judge pointed out that the man should already be on bail.

“Both parties are in agreement. It appears that the mistake was that two years ago the advice was that if bail breached, re-arrest was automatic. But that law was changed.”

After retiring to chambers for almost two hours, the magistrate issued a decision, declaring the man's detention illegal and ordering his immediate release.

Korouma is understood to be considering filing an action for damages.

Lawyers Jose Herrera, David Camilleri and Matthew Xuereb appeared for Korouma, lawyer Mario Mifsud appeared for the prison director. Lawyer Ylenia Abela appeared for the AG.