18-year criminal case breached man's rights, court says

The compilation of evidence against the man over drug-related charges dragged on for almost two decades

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

A constitutional court has declared that a man’s right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time had been breached by a compilation of evidence which dragged on for a staggering 18 years. 

Angelo Zahra had been arrested on drug-related charges in 2001 and was granted bail while compilation proceedings continued.

However, the process ground to a halt when five of the prosecution’s witnesses, who were facing separate criminal proceedings, did not testify to avoid self-incrimination.

As the situation dragged on, defence lawyer Joseph Giglio, requested a constitutional reference for the First Hall, Civil Court to determine whether the accused’s fundamental right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time had been breached. 

The request for a reference was upheld and the case referred to the First Hall of the Civil court. The Attorney General had argued that Zahra could not complain about delays when his own request had caused further delay.

However, Justice Mark Chetcuti observed that for a number of reasons, in “18 years the prosecution had not declared its evidence stage as closed”.

“It was unacceptable under the rule of law that 18 years after the arrest of the accused, the prosecution had still to conclude its evidence stage….no matter how indispensable its witnesses,” the Court observed.

It also observed that since 2005, there had been 136 sittings and 21 witnesses had testified, while the case had been adjourned 25 times on account of the prosecution, 10 times on account of the defence and another 10 times by the Court, presided over by three different Magistrates, two of whom had since been elevated to Judges.

There was no singular determining factor to assess whether the duration of proceedings was reasonable or not, the Court explained, adding that all circumstances of the case had to be taken into consideration.

The Court said that in this case, the principal - although not the sole - reason for the delay was the prosecution’s insistence on the testimony of the five witnesses.

“The State is bound to ensure that the judiciary delivers justice within a reasonable time and that the constitutional and conventional rights of the parties are not breached,” ruled the court as it declared the applicant’s rights to have been breached.

It ordered the records of the case to be sent back to the lower courts for the continuation of proceedings, whilst urging the prosecution to close its evidence as soon as possible.

No further remedies were requested of the court.

Lawyers Joseph Giglio and Sarah Mifsud appeared for Zahra.