Suspended sentence, €5,000 fine for man who made acid threat to NGO president

Man found guilty of hate speech after writing on Facebook he would doused the president of NGO Repubblika Robert Aquilina with acid

Repubblika President Robert Aquilina (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Repubblika President Robert Aquilina (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

A court has found a man who wrote on Facebook that he would have doused the president of anti-corruption NGO Repubblika with acid, guilty of publishing hate speech.

Johan Vella, 42, from Gzira, had been charged late last year, over a comment he had published on Facebook on March 2, 2023, in reaction to a picture of Repubblika president Robert Aquilina affixing a sign that reads “Joseph Muscat il-Prim Korrott”, to the door of Muscat’s office.

“With all due respect, were a clown like this guy to stick rubbish on my property, I would throw a can of acid at him. What right does he have to vandalise people’s doors? Who does this can of trash think he is?” Vella had written about Aquilina.

In a decision handed down earlier today, Magistrate Ian Farrugia ruled that the charges of misuse of telecommunications equipment and inciting hatred against another person or group of persons on the grounds of political or other opinion had been proven.

Describing Aquilina as “a vociferous critic of the government and other individuals in high-ranking positions in the country, and above all of ex-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat,” the court also acknowledged what it said was the “highly charged political climate in Malta.”

“While Repubblika and Robert Aquilina have their own following, it is a known fact that the stature of the ex-Prime Minister in the eyes of his followers is certainly not unimportant,” said the court.

Both Muscat and Aquilina had “an obligation to accept criticism irrespective of how harsh it is, but also had the right to ensure that it was in conformity with the law,” said the court.

There was no doubt that Repubblika’s press conference was “clear, direct, but above all peaceful,” said the magistrate, contrasting it with the defendant, who instead of criticising him constructively and peacefully, chose to use words which were “not only harsh, but which certainly have threatening and abusive characteristics.”

Through his words, said the magistrate, after taking into account all the surrounding circumstances, Vella had created the probability of inciting violence and hatred towards Aquilina.

When the crime of incitement to hatred was introduced, the legislator had wanted to impose clear and legitimate limitations on personal behaviour “in a society that aspires to be civil and democratic,” observed the court.

Handing down a sentence of nine months in prison, suspended for three years, together with a fine of €5,000, the court said the punishment reflected a number of factors, amongst them justice and fairness, mercy and deterrence as well as “the thirst that the authorities should have for the protection of society in general.”

At the end of the sitting, Vella’s lawyer gave notice of his intention to appeal.

Inspector Kylie Borg appeared for the prosecution.

Lawyer Lennox Vella was defence counsel.

Lawyer Jason Azzoprdi represented Aquilina as parte civile.