Lawyers for Christopher Bartolo ask for case to be decided by Drugs Court

Christopher Bartolo had been jailed for five years after being found guilty of drug trafficking when he was caught with cannabis after being diagnosed with kidney failure, but his conviction was quashed last year

Lawyers for a man whose conviction on drug trafficking charges was recently quashed have asked that his case be decided by a Drugs Court, not the Criminal Court.

Bartolo had been jailed for five years after being found guilty of drug trafficking when he was caught with cannabis after being diagnosed with kidney failure.

But his conviction was quashed in 2018, after the constitutional court ruled that two statements released by Christopher Bartolo to the police, without his lawyer being present, must be expunged from the acts of the case.

Bartolo had consulted his lawyer before the interrogation, which was the only legal assistance allowed by the law at the time.

It emerged that Bartolo, despite having been advised by his lawyer at the time not to say anything during his interrogation, had decided to answer the police’s questions anyway. He ended up making several incriminating statements, telling the police that he would buy cannabis blocks both for his personal consumption as well as to sell to third parties – in particular to foreigners in Gozo.

He had pleaded guilty to the charges in 2017 to avoid a trial by jury and was jailed for five years by the Criminal Court.

He had subsequently won a constitutional case, decided last year, in which the Constitutional Court quashed the conviction and ordered that no future use of any of the defendant’s statements, sworn or otherwise, be made in his case.

Today’s sitting before madam justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera is the first to be held in Bartolo’s re-opened case since the constitutional decision, 13 months ago.

The Attorney General was insisting on an indictment, arguing that Bartolo had pleaded guilty to the trafficking charge and therefore had to be sentenced for it.

Defence lawyer Franco Debono rebutted that Bartolo had been faced with a Hobson’s choice. The presiding judge had denied an adjournment, and he could not go for a jury with that statement in the acts as he risked going to jail for life. “The Constitutional court then ruled that Christopher Bartolo’s statement should be expunged. Constitutional cases are not a waste of time,” said the lawyer.

Debono invited the Office of the Attorney General to consider whether, in the light of the much lower amount of cannabis in the evidence, compared to that which he had been indicted over, a counter-order that would withdraw the offence from the bill of indictment was more fitting in the circumstances.

The lawyer stressed that the trafficking charge had only been made on the strength of his statement to the police, which was subsequently declared inadmissible.

From the date of Bartolo’s admission in 2014, Malta’s drug laws had undergone a radical change and the AG’s discretion to choose whether to prosecute drug cases before the Court of Magistrates or on indictment was now subject to scrutiny.

The small amount of drugs found in Bartolo’s possession meant the case now fell within the competence of a drugs court - and hence a much lighter punishment.

The court adjourned the case to June 20, ordering that the note dictated by the defence lawyer be communicated to the Attorney General, who is now to revert with a decision on the indictment.