Looking back at 2017 | The mark of a Maltese mafia

Christmas Specials • A violent year that remains book-ended by car-bombs and the death of one of Malta’s most intrepid journalists and bloggers

The courts were kept on their toes in 2017, a year bookended with heavily armed police escorts.

January kicked off with the continuation of the compilation of evidence following 2016’s Christmas Air Afriqiyah hijack whilst the closing days of 2017 saw the arraignment of three men suspected of having murdered Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Court sittings in both cases were heralded by the arrival of police in balaclavas and body armour, carrying assault rifles and tactical shotguns. Some had poked fun at the police for “dressing up” for the international news community in January, but not in the Caruana Galizia case - perhaps a measure of how much has changed in these 12 months.

A lot of other court-related things have happened, however.  Aside from two more murders, 2017 saw an avalanche of successful police raids on drug smugglers this year and the seizure of record-breaking amounts of narcotics, a disbarred lawyer extradited to face trial for fraud, a pensioner cleared of murder after 4 years awaiting trial and a refusal to extradite Chilean businessman Alberto Chang Rajii, accused of running a multi-million dollar ponzi scheme in his home country, back to Chile, amongst many others.

Lawyer Patrick Spiteri, who was extradited to Malta from the UK in May, following a cat and mouse game with the Maltese authorities, to face charges of fraud and misappropriation amounting to around €7.4 million and spent the next 9 months in preventive custody was finally released in time for Christmas after appeals were filed against several magistrates’ refusals to grant him bail.

Notable exonerations this year include that of lawyer David Gatt. Gatt, a former police inspector had been charged with 14 serious offences, including the €1 million heist in 2007 from the HSBC Bank branch in Balzan, three failed attempts to steal armoured cash vans, an attempted robbery at the main vault at HSBC Bank’s national headquarters and the foiled hold-up of a jeweller in Attard on 30 November in 2010. Gatt was cleared after the prosecution’s star witness, a police constable known only as “PC 99,” was comprehensively discredited by the defence as a fantasist.

The arraignment of a Maltese man and his Chinese partner blew what was left of the lid off the open secret that are brothels passing themselves off as “Chinese massage” parlours operating in Malta. In testimony that will draw parallels with the Leisure Clothing human trafficking case, employees said they had been promised very different jobs and conditions in China but found attempts to return blocked by employers who refused to return their passports.

Two car bombings shook the islands this year. In January, the murder of Victor Calleja, ‘ic-Chippy’, from Hamrun, whose car was blown up outside the Maltapost depot in Marsa. Calleja, 65, was well-known to the police, having also been previously implicated in the 1998 holdup on a Group 4 security van, in which Lm50,000 in cash were stolen. This was followed in October by the assassination of journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, also by a car bomb, which sent the country into a tailspin from which it is yet to recover. Three men have been charged with her murder, but accusations that the murder was either politically motivated, facilitated or indeed, commissioned are still being investigated.

For those who felt justice had turned its back on the islands, hopes that all was not lost were given a boost in October. The exoneration of 67-year-old Gerald Galea in his trial by jury for running over and killing a man who had viciously beaten him in the Qbajjar car park after Galea objected to the man’s cutting of a protected species of tree to make way for a kiosk, was greeted with joy by Galea’s friends and family, including his 97-year old mother who made the crossing from Gozo in tumultuous weather to attend a sitting.

Romeo Bone survived a car bomb explosion in Msida but lost both his legs. His criminal record suggests this was an act of gangland vendetta
Romeo Bone survived a car bomb explosion in Msida but lost both his legs. His criminal record suggests this was an act of gangland vendetta

Less prevalent in court than in previous years was the comic relief aspect, with only one obvious contender within easy recall - the case of the 16-year-old England fan who made a bet with Twitter that he’d invade the pitch in return for 400 retweets. Several thousand retweets, a pitch invasion, arrest, conditional discharge, nominal fine and a reported lifetime ban from England games later, the youth succeeded in setting a high standard for spectator Pyrrhic victories.

No, 2017 was a year for dark and frankly, upsetting, court stories. Despite the successes in the fight against drug trafficking, other stories - from property developer Charles Polidano’s €100,000 fine for regulatory breaches being reduced by 90%, to an innocent bystander being killed in a botched murder attempt, to the woman imprisoned in a cave by her husband, the year was a bad one for law and order.

Murder in Attard: an upholsterer is injured and another man shot dead in a hit carried out by somebody on a motorbike
Murder in Attard: an upholsterer is injured and another man shot dead in a hit carried out by somebody on a motorbike

Nowhere does this show more clearly than with the execution of journalist and blogger – and government bête noir – Daphne Caruana Galizia. The silencing of the government’s and, at one brief point, the Opposition’s, most prolific and vocal critic sent shockwaves around the world and has left many in the journalistic profession looking over their shoulder. Less than comforting is the fact that, despite the impressive investigation that led to the arraignment of three men suspected of involvement in her killing, police sources say they are no closer to finding out who commissioned the murder – a fact not lost on many despite the fanfare surrounding the arraignment.

2018 may well prove to be a pivotal year for keeping the public’s faith in the rule of law from disappearing completely, an eventuality which would itself bring about the collapse of this civilising trait and consequences which are truly unthinkable. A concerned public and press will both be keeping their gaze fixed on the courts next year, waiting and hoping.

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