Paqpaqli supercar crash | Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca hung out to dry by predecessor

Former president George Abela told a court on Thursday that during his time in office, responsibility for charity events like Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina was borne by him • This contrasts with what President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca told another court a week ago

Former president George Abela and his successor Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca
Former president George Abela and his successor Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca

President Emeritus George Abela has told a court how, during his time in office, he felt the ultimate responsibility for charity events such as Paqpaqli Ghall-Istrina should be borne by him.

"At the end of the day I believed that responsibility fell squarely upon my shoulders," the former president said while testifying in front of Magistrate Aaron Bugeja on Thursday morning.

The court continued to hear evidence about the 2015 Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina tragedy in which a supercar crashed into spectators, injuring several. Members of the organising committee and the supercar driver, Briton Paul Bailey, have been charged with involuntarily causing grievous bodily harm, as well causing damage to various motor vehicles, through imprudence, carelessness and non-observance of regulations.

In a different court case filed by crash victims, seeking compensation, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca last week distanced herself, the presidency and the Malta Community Chest Fund (MCCF) from the organisation of the ill-fated charity event, saying it was a third party event.

In a sitting held on Wednesday, Magistrate Bugeja heard about the uncertainty over the functioning of the Malta Community Chest Fund and its involvement in the annual charity event. However, the former president, testifying in court this morning, gave a clearer picture of how things worked during his tenure, which lasted until April 2014.

Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina was definitely a MCCF event. It was a great crowd-puller and it definitely fell under the Presidency George Abela

Throughout his hour on the witness stand, Abela stressed that ultimately, the responsibility for any event organized under the MCCF banner, rested squarely on the President’s shoulders.

The former head of State explained how, under the MCCF statute, decisions were taken by the board of administrators, which was made up of constituted and nominated members. This board was presided by the president.

Events were overseen by a central committee, captained by the President’s aide de camp, at the time Capt. Mark Mallia, the former president said. He explained that Capt. Mallia would coordinate all the various sub-committees tasked with different fundraising activities, one of which was Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina.

'I bore responsibility for those decisions'

Abela said that during his time in office, the central committee would hold meetings in the dining room at San Anton palace. Abela said that he would strive to attend every meeting and made it a point to ensure that he was fully briefed on the outcome whenever he was unable to attend.

"The decision-maker was Mark Mallia but all were on board and ultimately I bore responsibility for those decisions," the former president stressed. He explained how upon assuming office he had brought together a team of enthusiasts and experts who, on a voluntary basis, had collaborated on the popular annual motoring event.

Tonio Darmanin was the "kingpin", Abela said, adding that he had approached the well-known car enthusiast, who roped in other volunteers to form a team aimed at working towards a good cause.

"Especially in view of the particular situation prevalent in our country at the time, the central aim of the presidency was to enhance unity among the people and also to promote a healthy lifestyle," Abela told the magistrate.

As President he had striven to work "with volunteers" and not compete with them, Abela said. To the members of the Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina core committee, who had shared their time and expertise on his team, some of who were facing criminal charges, the former President gave unequivocal backing. "I have nothing but words of praise for these people," he said.

"Yes, obviously there were hiccups along the way, but I always would step in personally to ease tensions among members of the team so that the team progressed, because the important message was not money but that all stakeholders worked together for a good cause," Abela repeated.

Asked by lawyer Joe Giglio whether the organisation of Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina differed in any manner from that of other charity events such as Rockestra or the August Moon Ball, the former President replied in the negative.

The magistrate interjected, pointing out that various witnesses had made a distinction between MCCF events and third party events in past sittings, classifying Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina in the latter category.

"In my time there were no such third party events, there was one model throughout. The ultimate responsibility fell to the President even if the event was organised by the MCCF," Abela replied.

"Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina was definitely a MCCF event. It was a great crowd-puller and it definitely fell under the Presidency," he repeated.

The crash scene in 2015 (Photo: Matthew Mamo)
The crash scene in 2015 (Photo: Matthew Mamo)

'Safety details I would personally make sure were observed'

The former President also touched upon the painstaking attention to detail and tremendous effort which had been used in the organisation of the annual car show during his time in office, telling the court how the organising committee had benefited from the expertise of the McLaren racing team during a visit to Malta by Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton in 2012.

That visit had left behind a trove of expertise that was used for the planning of subsequent editions of the show, in particular when racing demonstrations were added to the formerly static car display, he said. Safety had been a cornerstone of planning the event, Abela insisted.

The structuring of the track was made in such a way as to ensure that the cars would be driving at a slow speed when close to the spectators’ area, with the high-speed areas of the track a safe distance away, Abela declared.

In fact there would also be markings on the track itself, indicating where drivers had to slow down and brake. "The whole track was meticulously mapped out. These were fine details which I personally used to make sure were observed," Abela said.

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi suggesting that George Abela's court testimony should lead to Coleiro Preca's resignation
Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi suggesting that George Abela's court testimony should lead to Coleiro Preca's resignation

Crowd control and safety was also planned in detail. Barriers, patrolled by police, kept the public far away from the track. In between the public and the track was a buffer zone, lined with water-filled crash barriers which were tied together for added strength - a detail learnt from the McLaren booklet, Abela said.

A member of the organising committee would personally supervise the placing of the barriers and would ensure they were filled with water.

The event had always been covered by an appropriate insurance policy, issued under qualified expert advice and in line with risk assessment reports which had been discussed with all the relative stakeholders, concluded Abela.

"All these events, with all the benefits, responsibilities and commitment they entailed, were organised by the Presidency," he added.

Paul Bailey is being represented by lawyer Giannella de Marco, while lawyer Joe Giglio is Tonio Darmanin’s legal counsel. Brian Gatt and Julian Manara are being represented by lawyer Stefano Filletti in the court proceedings. Lawyers Roberto Montalto, Michael Grech, Michael Sciriha, Lucio Sciriha, Shazoo Ghaznavi, Alessia Zammit Mackeon, Franco Debono and Amadeus Muscat are amongst the lawyers for the victims.

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