Looking back 2023: Demons, fraud and murder: A year of court stories

Court is a strange beat to cover, where no two days are the same and where the crucially important mingles freely with the mind-numbingly tedious and the outright fascinating - often simultaneously. This makes summing up a year’s worth of stories—a rough total of about 300 in 2023 — quite the task.
Senior court reporter MATTHEW AGIUS looks back at some of the more salient court cases.

Court (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Court (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

"Demons" : 20-year sentence for manipulating vulnerable family

The year started off strong, with a conviction and 20-year prison sentence being handed down in January, to a young man from Bormla who had manipulated members of a vulnerable family into performing depraved sex acts on each other, by pretending to channel a demon. The punishment handed down by the Criminal Court is one of the harshest ever imposed on a sex offender in Malta

Guilt, not guilty: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murderers contest their conviction

The year also saw unexpected twists in big cases. Alfred and George Degiorgio, each serving 40-year sentences after sensationally pleading guilty to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on the first day of their trial last year, lost an appeal in November, in which they had claimed the legal aid lawyers appointed to represent them at trial had insufficient time to acquaint themselves with the evidence. The Degiorgios’ original lawyer dropped their brief six weeks before the trial’s scheduled start date, after George Degiorgio candidly admitted, during a podcast interview, to having killed Caruana Galizia, describing the hit as “business as usual.”  The two murderers also filed a Constitutional case on this issue, which continues in the new year.

In a letter to President George Vella sent in April 2023, the Degiorgios requested a pardon in exchange for information about the involvement of a former cabinet minister in the murder. The letter coincided with the filing of more constitutional proceedings by the brothers in which they are requesting a reconsideration of past refusals to grant them a pardon in exchange for that information.

The waiting game: Yorgen Fenech’s impending trial looms large

2024 will be a pivotal year for the case against Yorgen Fenech, the one in which he is expected to go on trial, accused of commissioning Caruana Galizia’s murder. For much of 2023, his lawyers attempted to achieve - with some success - the expunging of incriminating evidence, such as references to several statements Fenech had released to the police, whilst also claiming the prosecution had failed to exhibit evidence that, they say, indicates the involvement of Keith Schembri and others in the plot to kill the journalist.

Fenech’s bid to obtain the revocation of the presidential pardon issued to the self-confessed middleman in the murder, Melvin Theuma, is now in the hands of the courts after being rejected by Cabinet.

Double whammy: Transport Malta’s corruption woes

2023 was a bad year for the transport regulator. Transport Malta was hit with revelations that it had systematically “helped” undeserving candidates pass their driving tests, and, to top it all off - a harassment case involving two of its employees. The cases are ongoing.

No charge yet: Doctor and former MP at centre of €4.3 million benefits fraud

In September, The Sunday Times of Malta reported on the extent of the disability benefit fraud at the heart of which was family doctor and former Labour MP, Silvio Grixti. The beneficiaries, tended to reside in the Labour Party strongholds of Tarxien, Żejtun, Birżebbuġa and Paola. But while the beneficiaries appear to have been quietly arraigned over the latter months of 2023 for claiming benefits they were not entitled to, Grixti himself was only questioned by the police and has not been charged with any offence yet.

Lilu King: Organised crime and money laundering?

In May, Mohamed Ali Ahmed Elmushraty, a character with a colourful past whose ostentatious displays of wealth made him a minor celebrity on social media, was arraigned alongside two other North African men, charged with money laundering, tax evasion and participation in organised crime. Other charges relating to alleged breaches of bail conditions and unlicensed driving were also pressed. Unlike the other two men, Elmushraty was not charged with drug trafficking.

The court heard how, despite not declaring any income, Elmushraty lived a lavish lifestyle. A police surveillance operation had observed him using several luxury vehicles and spending time in the company of individuals who were described as “well known to the police in connection with drug importation.”

However, prosecutors have struggled to exhibit conclusive evidence to support their claim that Elmushraty was involved in laundering the proceeds of organised crime and drug trafficking, a fact highlighted by both the Court of Magistrates and the Criminal Court.

No good faith: Christian Borg and No Deposit Cars

In March, a group of 26 customers of No Deposit Cars filed a judicial protest against the company, its parent company Princess Holdings and the company’s owner, Christian Borg, accusing them of participating in a criminal conspiracy that had forced or induced them to pay over €1,000 for imaginary contraventions. The 26 individuals are requesting the court also order that Borg be investigated and charged with participating in an organised crime group.

The defendants responded by putting up a banner mocking the lawyer who filed the protest and posting a video doxxing some of the signatories to the protest, by publishing their name and photos from their social media accounts. A second video singled out MaltaToday journalists Karl Azzopardi and Luke Vella, who had broken the story about the group’s lawsuit.

In August, a magistrate upheld a request to begin an inquiry into claims of kidnapping, money laundering, theft and stalking involving persons connected to No Deposit Cars Ltd.

And in a scathing judgment delivered in October, Mr Justice Toni Abela annulled one client’s rental agreement, concluding that the company’s contracts, which included a clause forbidding clients from making complaints for latent defects, were not premised on good faith and therefore fraudulent.

Leaked chats: Rosianne Cutajar’s cosy relationship with Yorgen Fenech

Blogger Mark Camilleri turned the tables on Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar last March, when he published unredacted and intimate chats between her and the man indicted for masterminding the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Yorgen Fenech.

Cutajar was left with egg on her face, just 24 hours before Camilleri was due to face her in court as the defendant in a libel case filed against him by the MP. Cutajar had denied having a relationship with Fenech - a claim contradicted by the chats.

The day after the chats were leaked, Cutajar’s lawyers complained to the Attorney General, who immediately informed the court and requested an investigation into the leaks. Within 24 hours the police had concluded their investigation and confirmed that Camilleri’s publication had breached a publication ban issued in 2021. A Criminal Court judge then ordered that Camilleri be prosecuted for contempt of court.

Fatal collapse: Five charged over Jean Paul Sofia’s death

In July 2023, five individuals were accused of the involuntary homicide of young Jean Paul Sofia, who died at the age of 20 in a building collapse at a Kordin construction site in December 2022.

Company director Matthew Schembri, 38, from Birkirkara; developer Kurt Buhagiar, 39, from Naxxar; architect Adriana Zammit, 35, from Zabbar; construction company directors Milomir Jovicevic, 39, and his wife Dijana, 39, were charged with a number of offences, which include involuntary homicide and forgery. All five accused pleaded not guilty and were granted bail under strict conditions.

The charges came after a magisterial inquiry into the fatal collapse identified a number of serious workplace health and safety failings.

Crime ring: Rival prostitution ring behind fatal stabbing

The compilation of evidence against Ilie Constantin, Ionut Iulian Tanase, and Dan-Andrei Tanase, the three Romanian men accused of murdering Josef Rivas in December 2022, continued in 2023. Rivas died after being stabbed in Paceville. The court heard that Rivas had been part of a Romanian organised crime ring, with at least one previous murder conviction and links to a 2003 plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham.

In October 2023, a joint investigation carried out by journalists from MaltaToday, RISE Romania, the OCCRP, and researchers from the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation established that the fight in which Rivas was killed traced its roots back to a Romanian family’s feud about profits from a prostitution racket they were operating in Malta.

Double murder: Grisly murders at Marsa stables

In October, Iddirisu Faisal, 34, from Ghana, was charged with the murders of 73-year-old Joseph Bartolo and 56-year-old Carmen Abela, as well as the attempted murder of another woman from Nigeria. Faisal, a plasterer, was also accused of grievously injuring the woman and slightly injuring another Nigerian man, as well as charges relating to resisting arrest, damaging private property, disobeying lawful police orders and slightly injuring a police officer.

The court was told that Faisal had been renting a converted stable at the old horse-riding school on Triq it-Tigrija, Marsa from the victims as his accommodation.

Trial postponed: Daniel Muka drops legal aid lawyer

Daniel Muka, 28, was due to go on trial in October, accused of the murders of Christian Pandolfino and Ivor Maciejowski, who were shot dead inside their home in Locker Street, Sliema, on 18 August 2020. But the trial had to be postponed on the first day after the defendant refused to be represented by his legal aid lawyer.

Terrorism: Group accused of sharing ISIS propaganda online

Seven Syrian men were charged with disseminating extremist messages inciting and glorifying terrorism, and recruiting or attempting to encourage others to commit terrorist acts, after police broke up what they said was a suspected Islamist terror cell In April,

The men were also accused of teaching others how to use explosives and firearms, and attempting to travel to the EU to take part in terrorist acts. Three more men with links to the first group were arrested and charged with related offences in October.

Trumped up: El Hiblu three indicted on terrorism charges

The Attorney General’s decision to plough on and indict Ivorian and Guinean nationals Koni Tiemoko Abdoul Khader, Amara Kromah and Abdalla Bari for terrorism-related offences, despite mounting evidence indicating that the charges had been exaggerated, attracted the ire of international human rights advocacy groups in 2023.

The defendants had been just 15, 16, and 19 years old when they were charged with hijacking the El Hiblu 1, the oil tanker that had rescued them and 108 other people fleeing Libya from the sea, in 2019. They insist they were only acting as interlocutors between the migrants and the crew because they were the only ones who could speak English.