Exorcising ghosts | Reno Azzopardi

In the four years since his brother died under mysterious circumstances in police custody, Reno Azzopardi has struggled to overcome his sense of loss. This he eventually achieved through art and meditation. But he still hasn’t lost sight of the pursuit of justice.

Betrayal of trust: 'You feel betrayed by society... all the things you are supposed to trust; the police, the authorities... you just can't trust them anymore'.
Betrayal of trust: 'You feel betrayed by society... all the things you are supposed to trust; the police, the authorities... you just can't trust them anymore'.

The lingering influence of the dead upon the living is arguably one of the most archetypal literary themes of all time. From Shakespeare's Hamlet to Joyce's The Dead, the idea that we are all up to a point conditioned by the memory of our lost loved ones has consistently cropped up - in different eras, and across different continents - throughout art and literature.

One place where it is unmistakably felt is in Reno Azzopardi's semi-subterranean garage/workshop in Naxxar. I am not exactly one to believe in ghosts: at least, not in any literal sense of the word. Certainly I find it hard to imagine how anyone can seriously entertain the idea that the tormented spirits of the dead may wander the earth endlessly in search of release.

But ghosts of the more metaphorical variety... that's another prospect entirely. And though only two of us sat down for this interview in Reno Azzopardi's garage, throughout proceedings there was this uncanny sensation of an unseen third 'presence' sitting with us around the same table.

"Let me start by telling you how close my brother Nicky and I were," Reno begins. But to be honest he doesn't really need to. The room we are sitting in is itself a permanent witness to the bond.

 Looking down at us from the wall is a small collection of harpoon-guns (among other skin-diving paraphernalia) belonging to the late Nicholas: and scrawled in red lettering on the wall next to them are the words of the last SMS he had sent to his brother before the fateful events of April 2008.

The message itself is mundane in the extreme: Nicholas had texted his brother Reno to inform him that he had cleaned up his house while he was abroad (in the same SMS he also told his brother that he had earlier caught 3kg of octopus on a dive). But alongside so many mementoes of the man whose death we practically saw unfold before our eyes on YouTube, the haunting impression of his last text message is admittedly quite disconcerting.

Back around the table, Reno briefly revisits the harrowing moments when he was first summoned to the depot (in April 2008) to hear the grim news. He was told that his brother had only a few hours to live - after having 'jumped out of a window' at the Floriana depot (the first of several wildly conflicting versions of events to have come from official sources since that fateful day). Yet Nicholas survived for 16 days: and when he came to, the version he told his family was... rather different.

In a hair-rising deathbed declaration, Nicholas Azzopardi told his family that 'they' - referring specifically to two unnumbered police officers in blue uniforms - had beaten him to a pulp (the exact words he used were 'faqawni' and 'tawni xebgha tal-beati Pawli'), after which he was thrown (or dumped) unconscious off the bastions.

The declaration prompted a magisterial inquiry... but despite having registered unexpected improvements in condition over the following days, Nicholas Azzopardi died within just a few hours of testifying before the inquiring magistrate.

At this point, the video declaration had not yet come out in public.

Asked to relive his reaction to the news of his brother's unexpected death, Reno remembers that his biggest dilemma at the time was how to break the news to his mother.

"I had been seriously worried about how she might react. To talk about my mother and brother as 'close' would be an understatement..."

Here Reno digresses with an anecdote concerning the circumstances of his late brother's birth, over 40 years ago. "Did I ever tell you that he was born in a car after a traffic accident on the way to the hospital?"

No, I reply. So he recounts a scene that might not be entirely out of place in a B horror movie. In the mad rush to get to the hospital in time, the car carrying a heavily pregnant Mrs Azzopardi (I didn't ask how big he was as a baby: but as an adult he stood at 6.2 foot and weighed in at 120kg) was involved in a head-on collision. Reno's mother was sent flying through the windscreen, in an age before Perspex.

The car was a total loss, and Reno's mother suffered severe injuries to her face and neck.

But the baby was born healthy. "And you can imagine how deep the bond between them has always been since," Reno concludes.

So when it came to informing his mother that the apple of her eye had passed away (under such violent circumstances), Reno found himself at a loss.

"I don't exactly know how it occurred to me, but even as I spoke to her an idea popped to my head. Instead of telling her that Nicholas was dead, I told her that he had been severely injured and that he would be permanently impaired as a result: unable to walk, talk, think or do anything..."

After recovering from the initial shock, Reno remembered how his mother slipped into deep thoughtfulness for a few minutes. At length she spoke.

"I can't remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of: 'jahasra, it would be better if the Good Lord took him altogether'. It was then that I plucked up the courage to tell her the truth: that the Lord had in fact already taken him..."

Then he recalls how she asked him for the strangest thing imaginable, under the circumstances. "She asked me to get the broom out of the cupboard. I couldn't understand why at first. But then she started sweeping the floor, and I began helping her out in the kitchen... I can't rightly explain, but it sort of brought about this strange sensation of peace."

Thus began what Reno describes as a four-year 'healing process': a process he acknowledges was difficult, but which he firmly believes has transformed him into a better person. There was one thing, however, that helped him not only cope with his loss, but to rationalize it into something that transcended the ugly reality of his brother's death. He discovered sculpture.

"Back then I would often go to the same beaches where I used to go diving with my brother. I would sit on the rocks and meditate. Here and there I would find bits of driftwood that had washed up on the shore..."

Reno has meanwhile set his experiences down in writing, and here I quote from his as yet unpublished portfolio of sculptures: "I felt a connection with my lost friend as if he was telling me 'we swam rough seas together, life may batter you like this driftwood, it is broken and worn on the outside, but when you see through the outside shell, the inside is still solid. Bring out what is inside you...' I did just that, I stopped searching and looked inside me, and found happiness, a deep and serene feeling, a balance of body, mind and spirit. I did not try to sculpt and draw, I just let myself go without trying to achieve or be the best, just enjoying and expressing myself and then things started to come out from inside me and the wood. I sculpted away all the outer shell from myself and each log I found..."

What emerged from these early untutored efforts eventually took the form of a number of deeply evocative wood carvings which now adorn the main hallway of his home. Reno had earlier walked me through the collection, and each sculpture tells a different story: all poignantly relevant to his own recent experiences.

One in particular (entitled Broken Angel) stands out from among the others. This is how Reno describes it in the unpublished catalogue; "The angel in each and everyone of us, that genuine sincere goodness, hidden and suppressed, crying to come out and reach out for humanity. Broken by society's suppressions and false dreams: one-winged, hoping, broken- hearted, that one day justice will be done and [the angel] would be able to fly freely and reach up for the skies..."

But while art brought solace to Reno, and helped him overcome his initial yearnings for revenge, he has not lost sight of the pursuit of justice. The hardest part of his ordeal, he tells me, was living with the suspicion that his brother was the victim of a crime which was subsequently covered up by the authorities.

"It's difficult to describe the feeling. But when you have to depend on institutions, and these institutions fail to function as they should... it dashes your faith in the system. You feel betrayed by society... all the things you are supposed to trust; the police, the authorities... you just can't trust them anymore."

A complete list of the suspicious inconsistencies that surround Nicholas Azzopardi's demise would be too cumbersome for the purposes of this interview, and in any case the issue has been minutely been dissected in other parts of this newspaper in recent weeks and months.

But what remains perhaps unclear was why there seems to have been a sudden turnaround in the official attitude towards the case. Following three separate inquiries which seemed to exonerate the police of all suspicion, the government spent four years studiously avoiding the entire subject.

At least in public. Reno tells me that, in the days following his brother's death, the family received a visit from Dr Michael Gonzi: an MP, and brother to the Prime Minister.

"He was very sympathetic," Reno recalls, "He told us how he felt for us, and I don't doubt he was being honest."

At this point, the existence of video evidence pointing towards murder was unknown to anyone outside the Azzopardi household. "I asked Dr Gonzi if he would be willing to listen to by brother with his own ears," Reno says. "His response was to say something along the lines of, 'I understand you are passing through a trauma, but your brother is dead.' I told him that he could still hear him if he wanted to. Then I opened my laptop and played him the video. When he heard what my brother said on his deathbed, his face went green..."

Reno also told Dr Gonzi that he had sent out copies of that video to the international press, and that if anything were to happen to himself or any of his family, it would be made public.

"It was all bluff at the time," he candidly admits. But when it became clear that no action would be taken, even after the relevant authorities had been informed of the case, the family did turn to the (local) media.

His father Joseph came to MaltaToday with the video, and following a press conference at our offices the matter passed over into the public domain.

That was four years ago, and - after an initial flurry of activity which saw magisterial inquiries spectacularly omitting to ask even the most obvious questions, or notice even the most glaring inconsistencies - the matter subsided from the public eye and was eventually all-but forgotten.

Until a few months ago, when - out of the blue - Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi made a surprise announcement in parliament, to the effect that he would be willing offer an amnesty to anyone who came forward with information about the case.

Evidently, something had happened behind the scenes that changed government's perception of the issue. I myself can offhand think of one good reason why the PM would take an interest in the matter only now (after ignoring it completely in 2008). After the resignation of Carm Mifsud Bonnici in June this year, the Prime Minister de facto became the acting home affairs minister... and is therefore politically responsible for the Police Force.

But Reno Azzopardi reminds me of another reason why his brother's mysterious death has once again become an issue: the recent revelation that the main witness in all three inquiries - police inspector Adrian Lia - had separately been charged and convicted for multiple thefts from the depot, dating back to 2007.

"When you consider how assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar had defended Lia in all three inquiries... at one point describing Lia as his right-hand man, and saying that if he was removed from his post he would reinstate him - the fact that he was involved in multiple thefts from the depot since 2007 has changed the ballgame. Suddenly there was reason to suspect that not all was rosy within the police. Suddenly, all the contradictions started to make sense..."

Another reason still is that, in the four years since the tragedy that transformed his own life beyond recognition, Azzopardi has found assistance and support from various quarters.

"I can mention Labour MP Evarist Bartolo, who took a special interest in the case and even precipitated a parliamentary discussion on the issue," he tells me. "But there are others too: for the past years I have been working very closely with a team of lawyers and other specialists, including IT experts, and our conclusions cannot realistically be ignored any longer."

Reno is understandably reluctant to reveal their identities, but the result of their efforts has already been partly made public. Discrepancies and omissions in the CCTV footage surfaced thanks to a painstaking four-year reconstruction of events, undertaken with the help of professionals. It remains to be seen whether the Azzopardi family will ever get the answers to the questions they have been asking since 2008.

If not, it certainly won't be for lack of trying.

if they had an idea who Martin Bajada " a court expert" with no qualifications in the field was they would have questioned the raw footage a long time ago !