Update 2 | Ten hunters remanded in custody, relatives threaten reporters

MaltaToday reporters escorted by police officers after hunters' relatives hurl insults, shout abuse and threaten them

Ten hunters were remanded in custody
Ten hunters were remanded in custody

Ten hunters were this evening remanded in custody after being charged with involvement in the illegal protest held on Sunday in Valletta against the government’s decision to suspend the autumn hunting season.

The proceedings were not taken lightly by the accused – one of them reacted to the end of proceedings by shouting and taking off his jacket, which is mandatory wear in the courtroom. He was removed by the police.

Tensions continued to flare outside the courtroom, when relatives of the accused began to hurl insults and threaten members of the media who were covering the hearing.

One of the relatives threatened a PBS journalist by shouting, “I know where you live!”

Journalists and camerapersons were asked by the police to keep back while the hunters were being escorted to the prison van but two MaltaToday reporters had to be escorted by the police to their cars as relatives continued to threaten them.

The hunters, all men, whose age ranged from 19 to 44, were charged with forming part of an illegal protest during which they showed disrespect to the government, with conspiring with others to commit a crime and break the law, and with insulting the Prime Minister and the government of Malta.

Two of the men were charged with the possession of an imitation shotgun, three were charged with hurling stones, while another two hunters were charged with assaulting three journalists.

On Sunday the hunters – who have taken umbrage at the government’s “collective punishment” of curtailing the hunting season and have since insisted on the revocation of the hunting ban – held an illegal protest at City Gate, and in front of Castille and the Labour Party Club in Republic Street.

They were also heard shouting insults at the government and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and hurled stones and empty beer cans at the Labour Party club. Some time later, a group of 30 hunters attacked 13 BirdLife birdwatchers.

One of the birdwatchers is said to have been surrounded by seven hunters and assaulted, while others fled away as hunters threw “rocks so big that they could have killed them”.

Sources said that the police are currently investigating CCTV footage and are expected to charge hunters with attacking BirdLife officials. Moreover, informed sources said yesterday’s accused were the “masterminds and the trouble makers” of the protest, and that others will be arraigned in court in the coming days.

The police said that two of the accused were involved in the attack at Buskett.

Christian Aquilina, a 26-year-old man from Birkirkara, was the first to be arraigned for allegedly posting a Facebook post about the protest – an action which the police said was tantamount “to instigating others to commit a crime”.

Aquilina pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit a crime and to break the law, to inciting others to disrespect the government of Malta, and for failing to inform the police commissioner about the protest.

Defence lawyer Raphael Fenech Adami said his client did not participate in the protest, and that he only posted a Facebook post informing others of the protest. After being summoned to the police station and berated for instigating an illegal protest, the accused deleted his post, only to post again: this time saying that the event had been cancelled because it was not covered by a police permit.

Nevertheless Magistrate Marseann Farrugia, said that arrest was justified. Moreover, the court upheld the police’s objection to bail and remanded Aquilina in custody as there was a risk of tampering with evidence.

The other nine hunters were arraigned together. They were: Arnold Farrugia, 21, of Dingli, Brian Grech, 21, of Rabat, David Spagnol, 44, of Marsascala, Gabriel Farrugia, 19, of Mosta, Krist Callus, 23, of Zurrieq; Alan Mizzi, 22, of Zebbug (Gozo); Simon Camilleri, 26, of Zabbar; Oliver Borg, 42, of Marsascala; and Josmar Buhagiar, 28, of Zabbar.

The men all pleaded not guilty to forming part of an illegal protest during which they disrespected the government, to conspiring to commit a crime, to inciting others to break the law, and to insulting the prime minister.

Moreover, Arnold Farrugia, Brian Grech and Alan Mizzi were charged with hurling stones, making obscene gestures, with disturbing the public peace and with disobeying police orders.

Farrugia and Mizzi were also charged with the illegal possession of an imitation shotgun while committing a crime that threatened security, while Krist Callus and David Spagnol were also charged with assaulting three journalists.

In submissions for bail, lawyers Franco Debono and Michael and Lucio Sciriha, insisted that if the police were to object to bail, the defence would request the court to summon the relevant witnesses – claiming that if the court were to withhold bail on account of the prosecution’s plea it would not be “in the spirit of justice”.

Moreover, Michael Sciriha said that the accused “were only exercising their right to freedom of expression,” and that spontaneous demonstrations were not illegal.

Superintendent Carmel Bartolo said that it would be impossible to summon all witnesses on the day, and said that the offences are “serious offences which are not committed in a civilised society”.

“One has to keep in mind that their actions caused fear among the victims and people in Valletta and Buskett,” the prosecution said, adding that the fear of tampering of evidence subsists during all of proceedings.

At the end of the four-hour sitting, Magistrate Farrugia turned down the application for bail and remanded the men in custody. Regarding bail, the magistrate ruled that there is fear of the accused tampering with evidence, and consequently the accused should be remanded in custody until all eyewitnesses are heard.  

Superintendent Carmelo Bartolo, and Inspectors Daryl Borg, Jurgen Vella and Edel Mary Camilleri are prosecuting.

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