Pending house arrest request, Patrick Spiteri finds himself in isolation

Lawyer Stefano Filletti: 'It is medieval to leave him in pain in prison and it is unacceptable to hold a person who is presumed innocent in isolation, like a punishment for being sick'

Disbarred lawyer, Patrick Spiteri
Disbarred lawyer, Patrick Spiteri

A court has ordered that former lawyer Patrick Spiteri, who is currently being detained pending several proceedings on charges of fraud and misappropriation, be provisionally held in isolation for health reasons.

The disbarred lawyer had been brought to Malta from the UK in late May on the strength of at least seven European Arrest Warrants to face charges of fraud and misappropriation that total some €7.4 million.

Spiteri has been in remanded in custody, in Corradino Correctional Facility’s Division 4, for over three months, despite his lawyer’s repeated requests for bail on health grounds - he suffers from a painful and rare condition known as Behcet’s syndrome which causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body, mouth sores, eye inflammation, skin rashes and genital sores - as well as to allow him to prepare his defence.

Stress and contact with the ever-present cigarette smoke in prison was exacerbating Spiteri’s condition, argued lawyer Stefano Filletti.

This view was upheld by a court-appointed medical expert who told the court today that, after having conducted a visit at prison this morning, Spiteri could safely be held as the sole inmate in division 15.

“I saw the place where Mr. Spiteri can be held, in Division 15. The size is 36 ft and 33ft and has a yard of almost the same size. There is sunlight but it is not direct. I confirm that the smoking of other persons does not help the accused’s condition. This place is big enough and he would be held alone there. I have seen the cell and there are windows and natural light. It is not hot. The important thing is that there is no smoke and no crowding with other prisoners.”

Spiteri lashes out at his continued detention: ‘Am I a terrorist? Am I already guilty?’

Filletti asked Spiteri to testify in the presence of the doctor and explain what his experience in prison is like. “It’s not just cigarettes in division. They’re everywhere:  in the lockup, in the van coming here. Everywhere. There is no place where there are no cigarettes. To go to the medical room, all the nurses gather outside, smoking four times a day,  then they go inside and handle your medicines without gloves. The treatment I get at 9pm is handed to me by an official with a lit cigarette in his hand. After my wife paid me a visit, the official who searched me for contraband was also holding a lit cigarette,” he said.

His “special diet” regime was an unchanging menu of chicken in the evening and fish in the morning, he added.

“My biggest problem there is diarrhoea, food. I can tell you that as soon as this is in the newspapers I will be mistreated again, to put me in my place.”

Spiteri protested that the situation was having an adverse effect on his health. “My system is going down. I have swollen glands, a tickle in my throat which is bad, had fever this morning. The stress is tremendous.”

“And if they don’t smoke, they blaspheme... prisoners and officials. So is that not stressful? So isolate me, brilliant. Is that the solution? I did not escape, I want to defend myself. It’s grimy. It’s dirty. Why isolate me? Am I a terrorist? Am I already guilty? I am trying to defend myself.”

Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera was also told that medical staff were considering starting Spiteri on a treatment that would reduce his immunity. “It is a long-term treatment, but this depends on blood tests, response to treatment. There is no indication of when it will end.”

The doctor said that some treatment was being given at this stage. “If there is a sufficient weight of evidence that a certain treatment should be given, then it will be started. I wouldn’t dream of starting someone on a treatment without a solid diagnosis.”

When the expert had inspected Spiteri’s cell in Division 4, he had found his cell to be smoke free, “but as soon as he opens the door the smoke would come in.”

This would be addressed if he is moved to division 15, he said.

“The important thing is that there is an arrangement to have the people around him not smoke. “

Filletti objected to the man being held in what would effectively be isolation, as even refectory was a smoking area, but the magistrate was having none of it. “If he doesn’t smoke, he eats alone. You can’t expect a whole prison to be non-smoking for Dr. Patrick Spiteri.”

Still on the witness stand, the doctor confirmed that the medical consensus was that a smoke-filled environment “could exacerbate the symptoms of his principal disorder” and that Spiteri should also not be forced into crowded places.

Corradino Correctional Facilitiy’s Correctional Manager Saviour Lia also took the witness stand, saying that instructions to keep the inmate away from smokers had not been received.

Lia said: “Division 4 holds over 40 prisoners…”

“55,” interjected the accused.

“There are places where smoking is not permitted.” These included the treatment room at the facility’s clinic, although people did smoke on that floor, the classrooms and chapel.

Lia told the court that he could order that Spiteri be kept away from smokers. Asked by Filletti why he had not done so already, he replied that the prison "had received no medical order or medical advice to do so."

The accused had not flagged the issue, he said.

“Spiteri is in contact with a social worker at the facility, who is checking whether Spiteri can be allowed extended visits. That is the only complaint.”

Spiteri insisted that the social worker had sent three emails on the topics of extended visits, medical and other issues, but Lia said he hadn’t been informed of any issues other than the extended visits.

The advice to keep him away from smokers was not received, repeated Lia, who testified that he had made certain that the medical staff provide him with the medication and treatment he needed.

“It is impossible for me to personally look into every individual case, but I can say that no hospital doctor or specialist gave us advice to keep him away from smoke.”

Filletti informed the court that he was objecting to Spiteri being effectively held in solitary confinement. “If he is transferred to Division 15, he is going to be in a de facto state of isolation. Isolation is, in and of itself, a punitive measure... at a stage when the accused is presumed innocent. “

The defence repeated its request for bail, insisting that a balance could be struck between security and the medical problems and difficulty in preparing his defence in prison.

“The defence reminds the court that according to the report submitted today, the symptoms include open sores and widespread ulcers and we are therefore talking of suffering and physical pain that is now seriously prejudicing the position of the accused.”

The lawyer warned that being kept in isolation would “emotionally destroy” the accused, as the accused and his English partner fought back tears.

But prosecuting Police Inspector Anne Marie Xuereb  argued that if the defence was going to bind itself to the court expert’s report, “it should do so in its entirety... testifying today, the expert recommended that the accused be kept away from people.”

With regards to bail, the police inspector argued that the accused had failed to obey orders both from Maltese courts as well as the police in the UK.

In his rejoinder, Filletti argued that one of the cases was put off indefinitely due to prosecutorial shortcomings and that the UK authorities had refused to send Spiteri back at first, due to health concerns. “He didn’t get sick capriciously. Like it or hate it, he is sick. The doctor saw the ulcers and wounds himself.”

“Nothing is going to remove contact with cigarettes in prison. In 2017 you have a person in this condition who is in pain. Is it right to leave him in pain? It is medieval to leave him in pain in prison and it is unacceptable to hold a person who is presumed innocent in isolation, like a punishment for being sick.”

The court, in view of the evidence, provisionally ordered that the accused be transferred to Division 15, “not as a punishment and not so as to be held in isolation, but so as to put him in a better position to receive treatment for his medical condition.”

“Under no circumstances is the accused to be treated by prison officers or paramedics who smoke.”

The accused is also not to be accompanied on his court and hospital visits in a van with other inmates who are also smokers and is to be held far from all forms of smoking at all times, said the magistrate.

When being brought to court, Spiteri is to be held apart from other inmates and further court sittings are to be held in the afternoon to avoid contact with smokers inasmuch as possible.

“Under no circumstances is the accused to be prejudiced in any benefit that other prisoners enjoy... This is being said because the health of a human being is of paramount importance.”

The case continues later this month.

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