Constitutional Court overrules Speaker on oil scandal decision

Constitutional Court rules that a person facing criminal proceedings has a right to silence when testifying before a parliamentary committee

The Constitutional Court has confirmed a ruling which held that a person facing criminal proceedings has a right to silence when testifying before a parliamentary committee.

Any ruling or guideline to the contrary would be in breach of fundamental rights.

The pronouncement was made in an appeal judgment concerning Frank Sammut, who was implicated in the Enemalta oil procurement scandal and who had been called to testify before the Public Accounts Committee while proceedings against him were still ongoing.

The First Hall of the Civil Court had  upheld the argument, made by the three persons charged, that they cannot be compelled to testify before the Public Accounts Committee due to the ongoing criminal proceedings against them.

Frank Sammut, Francis Portelli and Anthony Cassar had asked the first hall of the civil court in its Constitutional jurisdiction to declare the request that they testify before the Public Accounts Committee, as well as the Speaker's 2014 ruling on the matter breached his right to a fair hearing. They had also asked the court to declare the same with regards to the official Guide for Witnesses appearing before the Public Accounts Committee.

Since any deposition on his part could result in self-incrimination, Sammut had refused to appear before the parliamentary committee, leading to a ruling in February 2014 stating that the Speaker was to have the final say in determining whether any question which the witness “preferred” not to testify was incriminating or not.

The rules of procedure catered for punitive sanctions in respect of any witness who, chose to exercise his fundamental right to silence so as to avoid self-incrimination.

The Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia had ruled that they were obliged to testify and that if a questions that could possibly incriminate them was made, the Public Accounts Committee was to refer it to the Speaker to decide on whether it was permissible or not.

Moreover, the rules of procedure went so far as to envisage punitive sanctions in respect of any witness who, chose to exercise his fundamental right to silence so as to avoid self-incrimination.

In a judgment handed down last February Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon had described the ruling as a breach of the right to silence, making it clear that they had the right to silence and that any action taken against them for not testifying before the Public Accounts Committee would be a breach of their rights.

The House of Representatives and the Public Accounts Committee had appealed the judgment of the First Hall.

In a judgment handed down by the Constitutional Court, presided over by Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri and Justices Giannino Caruana Demajo and Noel Cuschieri, the court reaffirmed the supremacy of the right to silence, declaring that both the Guide for Witnesses and the Speaker’s Ruling were not applicable in respect of Sammut in view of the ongoing criminal proceedings in his regard.

Lawyer Joe Giglio was counsel to Sammut.

 

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