Former prison chief Alex Dalli loses two libel cases against MaltaToday and Illum

Court throws out libel cases filed by former prison chief Alex Dalli against MaltaToday and Illum over reports that shed light on his unorthodox disciplinary measures

Retired army colonel Alex Dalli ran the prisons with an iron fist and used unorthodox disciplinary measures that gave rise to claims of abuse
Retired army colonel Alex Dalli ran the prisons with an iron fist and used unorthodox disciplinary measures that gave rise to claims of abuse

Former prison chief Alex Dalli has lost libel cases against MaltaToday and Illum over reports that detailed serious incidents at the Corradino Correctional Facility under his charge.

Dalli had sued MaltaToday and its Maltese-language sister newspaper Illum over two stories: the first about the use of a restraint chair to humiliate a particular inmate, the second reporting a former officer’s claims that Dalli had put a handgun to the mouth of a misbehaving prisoner and threatened to shoot him.

In both cases, Magistrate Rachel Montebello threw out Dalli’s claims that the reports damaged his reputation, insisting that the assertions published by the newspapers were substantially correct and not the result of irresponsible journalism.

The magistrate said the newspaper reports were in good-faith about matters of public interest and therefore not defamatory.

The judgments effectively give credence to several reports at the time that shone a critical spotlight on Dalli’s unorthodox disciplinary measures. Dalli eventually resigned from his post after the umpteenth prison suicide on his watch.

The retired army colonel was later made government’s special migration envoy in Libya to coordinate action with the Libyan authorities to prevent people smuggling operations.

MaltaToday had reported that Alfred Bugeja, a career criminal known as ‘il-Porporina’, who is currently serving a 31-year prison sentence had been strapped into a restraint chair in the middle of prison’s central hall for protesting about having to wear a prison uniform. The author of the article, Karl Azzopardi, had sought Dalli’s reply to the allegation, and had reproduced the former prison director’s categorical denial.

Dalli had testified, denouncing the story an “outright lie” intended “to further sensationalise the issue,” while confirming that such a restraint chair did exist and would be used to prevent inmates from hurting themselves or others. He explained that in prison, situations would inevitably arise where physical control is required.

Amongst the witnesses produced by Dalli was Alfred Bugeja himself. Bugeja denied having ever been restrained in this fashion and instead praised the former director for his discipline and for putting him on the right path. The court noted that while Bugeja had stated that he had never seen any form of punishment, he had also recounted how the plaintiff had locked him in his cell for three straight days for “talking rubbish.”

Azzopardi had also testified, explaining that he had received the information about Bugeja being strapped to the restraint chair for approximately 45 minutes from three separate sources: two being prison warders and the third, a current inmate. He also exhibited a recording of a phone call that he had received from Bugeja, where the incarcerated career criminal had threatened and insulted Azzopardi, accusing him of lying.

The court noted that in his article, Azzopardi had also quoted a number of parliamentary questions made to Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, who denied the existence of a punishment chair, but then admitted that there had been “an episode” where an inmate was strapped to a chair for 15 minutes “following medical advice.”

In a TV interview aired before the article was published, the minister had also avoided answering questions about the chair, but eventually insisted that it had never been used for punishment and that restraining inmates was permitted by law.

Dismissing the case against MaltaToday, Magistrate Rachel Montebello observed that Dalli himself had described the claims as “recycled” and that the minister responsible for law enforcement had already stated that the chair had been used on the strength of medical advice. The article had also reported Dalli as having denied the claims on national television.

The court said it was “hard to explain how the plaintiff [Dalli] felt himself defamed by the article in question, when he is not contesting the allegations about the use of the punishment chair in prison and when reports about inmates being strapped to this chair on his orders had already been circulating in the public domain and published in the media.”

Illum libel case: Dalli and his gun

Dalli’s second libel suit was against Illum and former prison warder Emmanuel Cassar and dealt with the Maltese-language news outlet’s interview with Cassar. The former guard who had recently been dismissed after a dispute over his uniform, described “excessive discipline and abusive treatment of inmates.”

Defence witness Stephen Cachia, who had been Director General of lifelong learning at the Education department, testified about a tour of the prison he had been given as part of a delegation from the education ministry. During the visit, he had met Dalli who had spoken about his wish to rehabilitate inmates and his prioritising of order and discipline in prison.

Cachia testified that during this meeting, Dalli had told him about an incident that had allegedly occurred at the beginning of his leadership, where Dalli had gone inside a cell occupied by an inmate known to be a notorious ringleader, pulled out a handgun and put it to the inmate’s mouth, telling him that from then on, he [Dalli] was in charge.

In this case, the court ruled that the details that were being alleged to be sensationalist, were an integral part of the story which properly transmitted the gravity of the behaviour being attributed to the plaintiff, as a matter of public interest.

It also noted that the author of the article, Yendrick Cioffi and the registered editor of Illum, Saviour Balzan, had reported in a balanced manner, publishing facts both in favour and against the credibility of their source, Emmanuel Cassar, who had been dismissed from the prison service.

“Above all the Court finds that objectively, the publication of the article with the impugned statements can be taken to be a call for an official investigation into the allegations about the plaintiff in the exercise of his office, a public office which… requires its occupant to remain at all times accountable to the public…”

Magistrate Montebello said that the preponderance of the evidence pointed to the assertions published being substantially correct and not the result of irresponsible journalism.

In both cases, the court stressed that while it was not implying that Dalli had not carried out important reforms at Corradino, nor questioning his integrity or that he had earned the respect of inmates and correctional officers alike, the statements he was impugning in these cases were good-faith reportage about matters of public interest and therefore were not defamatory.

Lawyer Andrew Saliba assisted the defendants in both cases.