Transport Malta officials charged over video of assault on healthcare worker

The officials are being accused of a raft of crimes, including speeding - which is the same reason for which they stopped the victim's car

A driver whose assault by uniformed Transport Malta officials was captured on video in October has told a court that he was beaten up by the officers despite having complied with all of their orders. 

The man, Anoob George Thomas, a healthcare worker at Mount Carmel Hospital testified before Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech on Wednesday, as two Transport Malta officials have pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the beating that was captured on video by an onlooker.

Transport Malta Enforcement Officers Ivan Cassar, 42, from Żabbar and Rene Antonelli, 38 from Qrendi were charged by summons today before magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech in connection with the beating which took place on October 26. Prosecution sources say that the men could not be arraigned under arrest for procedural reasons, as they had turned themselves in before the warrant for their arrest could be issued.

At the end of today’s sitting, the court decreed that it saw sufficient grounds to merit the men’s indictment.

Inspector Ian Vella charged the two Transport Malta enforcement officers with inflicting severe physical suffering on a person for the purpose of punishing him for an act that he or a third person committed or was suspected of having committed, malicious violation of their official duties, illegally detaining the victim and failing to inform the police of his detention without delay.

The men were also charged with slightly injuring the man, attacking him, insulting and threatening him, breaching the peace and the night time repose of residents of the area and speeding - which is the same reason for which the victim’s car had been stopped by the officials.

The prosecution asked the court to treat the accused as public officials who were duty-bound to prevent such offences taking place and suspend their driving licences. A protection order and restraining order were also requested.

Press reports reveal Antonelli to be a canvasser to former transport minister Ian Borg.  Borg had dismissed any connection to the official when contacted by the press for comment.

Sources with knowledge of the case told MaltaToday that the incident captured on video happened after the victim had been chased by Transport Malta officials who suspected him of overspeeding. 

During this morning’s sitting, Thomas was served with charges relating to dangerous driving, failing to pull over swiftly enough to allow emergency or priority duty vehicles with acoustic and visible warning devices to overtake him and with disobeying lawful orders given to him by Cassar and Antonelli or hindering them in the performance of their duties. 

Inspector Vella testified at length about the investigation which had led to the charges. The police had received an email from Lovin Malta editor Tim Diacono, containing footage of the incident, he said. Investigators had then obtained details about which Transport Malta officials had been working that day from the authority itself. A Transport Malta employee had also identified the accused as being the two officials in the video, he said.

As part of the police investigation, the number plates seen on the vehicle being driven by the victim were traced to a hire purchase agreement. The police had then used the mobile phone number registered with the agreement to attempt to contact the victim. On 16 November 2022, the police had gone to the victim’s registered address to confirm his identity, said the inspector. A woman had answered the door and confirmed that the person in the footage was the victim, who arrived soon after and was questioned.

The CCTV footage retrieved by the police was found to be unusable for the case, the inspector said, but the identity of the Transport Malta officers was confirmed on 15 November, in an email sent by Transport Malta itself. Two other officials seen in the video were also identified by the authority and had later released statements to the police. The statements were exhibited in court this morning.

Thomas had refused an offer of assistance by the police’s victim support unit, said the inspector, who added that the police had requested and were subsequently provided with a copy of the unedited footage by Lovin Malta.

The person who filmed the incident had later come forward to the police to release a statement, said the inspector. CCTV footage of the area was not available, said the inspector, explaining that the police were told that the camera in question was not functioning at the time.

The police had requested data relating to calls from local phone service providers, in a bid to find the man shown being beaten in the footage. A phone call from Thomas’ sister-in-law to him was identified and traced from Saqqajja Hill in Rabat to Marsa, where the alleged car chase and subsequent assault took place. Charges were also issued against the victim Anoob George Thomas, said the inspector. 

"My conscience wouldn't let me keep it hidden," man who filmed the incident tells court

The first witness to testify today was Justin Aquilina from Marsa. Aquilina exhibited a pen drive containing a copy of the footage, which was played on a big screen in court. It shows a person wearing a red top and dark-coloured trousers, lying face down on the ground, as two men wearing Transport Malta motorcycle uniforms approach. The person on the ground is seen being dealt several blows. In the video, Aquilina’s shocked voice is heard remarking “ara xi jtih!” (“look how he is beating him!”) 

Magistrate Frendo Dimech asked the witness to describe what he had seen, observing that the persons in the footage were wearing motorcycle helmets.

Aquilina explained that he had been on the roof of his home, trying out his new mobile phone. He heard the siren and looked over the wall, to see a man on the ground. “He did not resist at any time. He obeyed the person in the helmet. I saw two traffic police beating the man up,” said the witness. It was later clarified that the officers were not police officers, but Transport Malta employees.

“I didn’t publish the footage at first, but my conscience wouldn’t let me keep it hidden,” Aquilina said. The court asked what the man being beaten had done. “Nothing,” replied the witness. “As soon as the second person arrived on the motorcycle, he ran up and started hitting him. No words were exchanged,” said the witness.

Lawyer Yanika Zammit Tabona, representing Thomas as parte civile, asked the witness whether he recognised the officers. He replied they had been wearing helmets.

“The man got out of the car with his hands up, then knelt down with his hands up and subsequently laid down on the ground face down,” said the witness.

Some three weeks later he had sent the footage to Lovin Malta, Aquilina explained. The court thanked him for his sense of civic duty. “It takes courage to do this,” said the magistrate.

Lawyer Ishmael Psaila, defence counsel to both of the accused officials, asked the witness what position the man had been in when he first saw him. The witness replied that he hadn’t seen the car come to a halt, but had seen the man getting out of the car. 

Victim testifies after being served with charges over the same incident

The victim, Anoob George Thomas, a Marsa resident originally from India, took the stand to testify. The court was informed that Thomas was also going to face charges in connection with the incident and that he was to be served with the charges today. “What's this mess?” exclaimed the magistrate, before ordering the witness to testify only about what happened after he stepped out of the car, and not the events leading up to that point.

Thomas was shown the video clip of the incident. “Because I got out of my car. I left both my hands up,” he said, demonstrating the position from the witness stand. Nobody had told him to do so, he said, but he did it anyway. “I turned to the Transport Malta person and asked him ‘what is the next procedure?’ He told me to lie down.” Thomas identified the defendant Cassar as the person who spoke to him. “Then someone came from behind and started to beat me.”

He explained that he had been driving too fast because he had just received a phone call from his sister asking for help, he said.

He had later seen the person who beat him up, he said and pointed out Antonelli in the courtroom. Antonelli had been “sitting on my back, pressing with something heavy…he hit me on my shoulder, head, leg and kicked me in my ribs,” Thomas recalled. 

“First I asked to talk with one person (Cassar). I didn’t see [who was beating me]. After I wake up I saw the two.” Then both of the officers had started to beat him with their hands and something else, which he could not identify. “One of them removed the helmet,” “Who?” asked the court. Thomas said it was Cassar.

The footage played again. Cassar was the officer telling him to lie down, he said. Then a second man is seen running up from out of shot and starts to hit him. People are seen intervening and holding the assailant back. Cassar’s helmet was removed during the clip. 

The court thanked the witness for his honesty.

Thomas told the court that he had suffered pain in his ribs for some time after the beating.

Zammit Tabona asked him why it had taken him a month to have the injuries checked out by a doctor. “My situation was: is my sister safe or not? I see she was safe. I am not bothered about that thing, I am bothered about my sister,” replied the victim, explaining that he had gone to see a doctor only after the police had approached him for a statement.

The court issued a protection order in favour of both Thomas and his sister-in-law, Aswathy Thomas, who testified next.

Before she testified Aswathy Thomas was informed by the court that the police did not plan to press any charges against her and therefore that she had to tell the “full, unvarnished truth.”

Showing her the video, Zammit Tabona asked the witness who the people in the first part of the video were. The person standing up over the prostrate man is “Transport Malta,” and a woman remonstrating with the official was her neighbour, she said. 

Aswathi Thomas had been in front of her house at the side of the road at the time and could see what was happening, she said. “They were hitting Anoob, my brother-in-law.” 

“Did you see their faces?” asked the court. The witness said that she had. “Do you recognise anyone here today?” “Both,” replied the woman, pointing at the accused men.

“They were hitting his head, shoulder, back and ribs…they used a helmet also,” she said, stating that she was sure that both of the officers had been hitting Anoob.

Her brother-in-law was telling the officers “I’m surrendering,” she said.

Police officers then arrived and had restrained the two accused to prevent them from continuing to assault the victim. “They [the police] wore a black uniform, I think,” she said, adding that the Transport Malta officers were wearing white.

Zammit Tabona asked what had happened after the footage ended. “When did they stop beating him?” clarified the magistrate. “More officers arrived and restrained them and they stopped beating him.” Anoob then got up off the floor and the people wearing the white uniform spoke to her, said the witness.

After Aswathy Thomas stepped off the stand, the court decreed that it had seen sufficient evidence for the accused to be placed under a bill of indictment and ordered that protection orders be issued in favour of the victim, as well as the witnesses and their families. 

Inspector Ian Vella is prosecuting.

Lawyer Ishmael Psaila represented the accused as defence counsel.

Lawyer Yanika Zammit Tabona appeared for the victim as parte civile