[WATCH] PM claims Maltese army is ‘paralysed’ by migrant death investigation

Robert Abela claims AFM has been left paralysed for days due to the magisterial inquiry on alleged migrant deaths at sea launched after a criminal complaint by Repubblika

Prime Minister Robert Abela was interviewed on One TV on Sunday morning
Prime Minister Robert Abela was interviewed on One TV on Sunday morning

The army has been left paralysed due to the criminal complaint filed by Repubblika over claims migrants were left to die at sea amid a closure of Malta's ports because of the COVID-19 crisis, Robert Abela said.

The Prime Minister said that around 40 Armed Forces of Malta soldiers were being interrogated as part of the magisterial inquiry on the case, which has left the army at a standstill for "hours and days".

In mid-April, Repubblika filed two files report: one against the crew of AFM patrol boat P52, alleging they had sabotaged a boat carrying migrants by cutting the vessel's engine cable, and another against Abela and army Commander Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi asking they be investigated for their inaction after being informed that people were at sea at risk of dying.

This week, new evidence emerged indicating the army soldiers had not sabotaged the boat, but instead conducted a standard rescue operation which involves pulling the engine's kill switch to shut it off.

Speaking during an interview on One TV on Sunday, Abela said that, as a consequence of the criminal complaint, it was not only the army commander and the patrol boat's 11 soldiers which were being called to give testimony in the ongoing magisterial inquiry, but over 40 AFM officials were being interrogated. "The army is being paralysed for long hours and entire days," he said.

"I will keep strongly defending our armed forces and I am proud of the work they did in the past years, which led to the saving of more than 13,000 lives."

Lambasting Repubblika's lawyer, PN MP Jason Azzopardi - who has since stepped aside in the case - Abela said it was "completely unacceptable" that a report was filed before the Police Commissioner before all the facts were available.

"It's not that they didn't have the facts, however - they [Repubblika] knew very well that the government and AFM did all they could to coordinate the rescue, but they felt they should still file the report. They later understood that what they had done has consequences and that they could be charged with filing a false police report."

Abela added that the government had succeeded in balancing the need to protect the health of Malta's residents amid the COVID-19 situation with fulfilling the country's obligations to save people at sea.

Malta managed to stop COVID-19 spread without full lockdown

On the situation surrounding the coronavirus, Abela said Malta had managed to strike the right balance between lockdown measures and allowing people to continue living their lives as normally as possible.

"We've managed to virtually completely control the virus while allowing people to live their normal lives as much as possible. We didn't shut everyone inside, close factories and freeze all work - we only stopped what was necessary."

Passport scheme has allowed COVID-19 financial aid

Abela also said that revenue from the passport selling scheme had allowed the government to offer its financial aid packages to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

"Imagine if we were in this situation but did not have the funds from the IIP programme. The government would not have been in a position to offer the financial measures which it did... we've saved over 80,000 jobs," he said.

On reports this week that Malta would be launching a revised golden passports scheme following discussion with the European Commission, Abela underlined that the government's would not agree with halting the programme, but was open to amending it.

"We have to defend the IIP. Our dialogue with the Commission has been constructive and I believe we will reach an agreement which is acceptable to both sides," he said, noting that citizenship remained a prerogative of the individual member states.

Fearne underlined, however, that the virus had not yet passed, and people should continue observing the measures in place.

"We will gradually loosen restrictions based on the numbers of new infections. We will monitor the situation - one shouldn't remove restrictions too late either, or else this would mean we have not had complete success in controlling the situation."

"We've had success on the medical side - now we must also be successful in stimulating the economy," he said.