[ANALYSIS] Cracking the Carmelo Abela paradox

Can Robert Abela have his Cabinet under a dark shadow over the allegations of two criminals, and how far can the Opposition go in raising the stakes of a case that could even backfire on them?

For Malta’s prime minister Robert Abela, a point-blank accusation by two hardened criminals that sitting minister Carmelo Abela played an essential role in the foiled 2010 HSBC heist, poses an enormous ethical dilemma. Can he afford having this dark shadow cast over his Cabinet, or does he set a precedent that also puts his entire Cabinet at the mercy of accusations by two alleged murderers?

In a letter strategically sent to the European Commissioner for justice in Brussels, Didier Reynders, the Degiorgio brothers – currently facing charges of murdering journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – have directly implicated sitting minister Carmelo Abela in the 2010 HSBC bank heist along with former minister Chris Cardona, who they accused financed an original Daphne Caruana Galizia murder plot in 2015.

The Degiorgios said that if granted a pardon they would spill the beans: providing the times and locations of meetings held in the preparation of the planned heist between the masterminds and others, including Cardona and Carmelo Abela; the planned payments from the stolen cash to be divided amongst all those involved; the confidential information and equipment used by Abela when he was Insurance Officer at the HSBC Head Office and the involvement and complicity of then members of the Malta Police Force.

Named and shamed

This represents a crucial development because for the first time, the Degorgios have mentioned Abela by name. Previously the role of a sitting minister in the heist was mentioned by Vince Muscat ‘il-Koħħu’, who has already been convicted of Caruana Galizia’s murder after getting a reduced sentence for testifying against the Degiorgios on the murder of lawyer Carmel Chircop.

Subsequently it was the Degiorgios who referred to the involvement of a sitting minister in the heist, in their own first request for a pardon. But why on earth would the Degorgios mention Abela – far from the obvious politician to be associated with a hold-up – and why would they risk requesting a pardon which would be withdrawn if the information provided is not successfully corroborated? It also raises the question on whether they are latching on to Abela’s employment with HSBC’s internal division that dealt with the cotag access system, simply to fabricate a bargaining chip; possibly to create hubris.

It was Nationalist MP and Caruana Galizia family lawyer Jason Azzopardi who earlier in November 2020 had declared on Saturday during a programme on 103FM that Abela was aware since March 2020 that a member of his Cabinet – “not a lawyer” (to exclude the traditional caste of politician) – was implicated in a crime by Muscat, in his pleas to police for a presidential pardon in return for information on a series of crimes.

“The Prime Minister knows, he has known since March, that he is not the only one who has to leave that room,” Azzopardi said, referring to the Cabinet. “Because the prime minister knows that Vincent Muscat, in the information he gave to police this March, and I’m not entering into any details, mentioned a person who occupies a Cabinet post, a minister, sitting not past – let nobody think that I am referring to some past minister – and this person is not a lawyer, he did not give some advice to some perpetrator.”

Suspicion easily fell on former HSBC employee Carmelo Abela, and six months later in April 2021, Azzopardi made a more categorical allegation in a Facebook status he posted, in a reaction to disparaging comments made by Abela. In no uncertain terms, Azzopardi made the most blatant of accusations that was an accomplice of the HSBC heist’s mastermind by passing on internal footage of the HSBC headquarters and false keys. “I am no saint... but better not to have been an accomplice in the HSBC hold-up,” Azzopardi said, adding that Abela was promised a €300,000 payment from the loot and that he was an accomplice with the mastermind of the heist in threatening witnesses via Signal.

This prompted Abela to sue him for libel, apart from strongly denying any involvement.

But Abela was now hesitant this week when asked directly by MaltaToday whether he will be suing the Degorgios for libel over their allegation to Reynders. And this prompted renewed calls by Opposition leader Bernard Grech for Abela’s suspension from the Cabinet until his name is cleared. But in a game of high stakes, which comes with very real and painful reputational damage for Carmelo Abela, Robert Abela is in a real quandary.

The PM’s elusive yardstick

So far the Prime Minister ’s line of thought in this case was to question the credibility of the accusers, expressing bewilderment at how people accused of complicity in assassinating Caruana Galizia are now being given credibility. But significantly while hitting back at the Opposition, which he accuses of a “coordinated strategy” with “criminals”, he added that he would not hesitate to take action if “any credible proof were to emerge”.

Such reasoning seems to contrast with the yardstick set in other cases. Konrad Mizzi was kicked out of the party after media stories linking him to the Montenegro scandal, even if he is yet to be charged with corruption or money laundering in a court of law. Junior Minister Rosianne Cutajar also announced her resignation pending an investigation by the Standards Commissioner on her alleged involvement in a property deal with Yorgen Fenech.

Comparisons are indeed odious. In the case of Mizzi, his overdue expulsion was motivated by the factual reality of the Panama companies and its links to secret companies owned by Yorgen Fenech and Cheng Chen. In this sense Robert Abela’s decision on Mizzi was a political move to remove a millstone from around his neck. On the other hand Rosianne Cutajar’s auto-suspension from Cabinet came in the wake of court litigation and media reports.

One problem for Abela is that while in Cutajar’s case her fate depends on the outcome of an investigation by the Standards Commissioner, in Carmelo Abela’s case the PM links his fate to absence of “credible proof” linking him to the bank heist. The other problem is that there is no judicial or administrative process with a clear outcome and timeframe, which can definitively clear Carmelo Abela’s name and the dark cloud hanging on the entire Cabinet.

What the PM can say at this stage is that so far the police have not found any evidence linking Carmelo Abela to the bank heist. Yet this raises another question: what if the information provided by the Degorgios’ is the only way to establish this link for the police to corroborate or refuse after a pardon is granted?

And yet, even here the PM sits on a minefield; for how can he even consider a pardon for the executors of the Caruana Galizia murder, something to which her family firmly objects? Matthew Caruana Galizia’s own reaction to the Degorgios’ letter to the European Commission was another explosive claim that the Degorgios’ legal expenses are being paid by alleged mastermind Yorgen Fenech – at least, as stated in court by the assassination middleman Melvin Theuma, who sought to pay the brothers’ lawyers’ fees by getting the cash from Fenech.

Is the Opposition raising the stakes again?

For the PN this high-stakes game could always backfire badly if Abela’s name is cleared or if he even wins the battle for people’s hearts. While there is validity in the argument that Abela should be suspended until his name is cleared, there is also validity in the argument that no government should put itself in a position where alleged assassins can hold it at ransom.

Enzo Tortora, from Portobello conductor to innocent man in prison
Enzo Tortora, from Portobello conductor to innocent man in prison

It is a situation that could create a precedent for any minister, politician or public person facing the wildest accusations in bids by criminals to obtain pardons or reduced sentences, or simply to create hubris. Let’s not forget that in countries like Italy, while pentiti had a crucial role in apprehending mafia bosses, fake allegations by some of them also led to massive injustices like that faced by TV presenter Enzo Tortora. Former PM Giulio Andreotti’s conviction for ordering the execution of journalist Mino Pecorelli was itself based on testimony by mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta. But the conviction was later overturned.

Is Carmelo Abela his own worst enemy?

Surely over the past months Carmelo Abela has not helped himself by first ignoring the accusations when his name was not directly mentioned but clearly hinted at, and then showing signs of confusion, especially when claiming to have forgotten testifying before the courts over his possible links to the failed 2010 heist. This inevitably raised the question: how could have Abela forgotten such an important detail?

Still for a moment one should consider how an innocent person faced such a grave accusation would feel and react. While we are forced to entertain the possibility that Abela could be as guilty as sin, which would have tragic consequences for his party and public trust in the institutions, one should also entertain a scenario where an innocent person ended up on the receiving end of a calumny. It is here where the Opposition has to be careful.

While one cannot vouch for anyone, especially after all that has been revealed in the past two years in which prominent businessmen like Yorgen Fenech were accused of murder and former chief of staff Keith Schembri is now facing money laundering charges, one should still wary to rush to conclusions. The Opposition was already badly bruised when it jumped the gun on Egrant instead of focusing on scandals where it had a more solid case.

Clearing the air

The only way out of the quandary is for the police to conclude its investigations on the bank heist and any possible inside job involving bank employees. The ideal scenario would be one where both government and opposition trust the police commissioner’s judgement on whether the Degorgios’ claims have any credibility or not.

This may be the only reasonable way forward, with Carmelo Abela possibly taking a step back himself until the conclusion of the recently reopened police investigation of the heist. Yet the paradox remains: if Abela is guilty his persistence in remaining in the Cabinet would not just be sinister but an affront to any semblance of institutional respect. This in itself raises the suspicion that there is too much at stake for Robert Abela in even entertaining the possibility of Carmelo Abela’s guilt especially a few months before a general election. For even a suspicion may be interpreted as a partial admission of guilt.

Moreover if Carmelo Abela resigns despite being innocent, he would have given in to the blackmail of a gang of criminals. It may even spell the end of his political career, especially if investigations drag on for years. But if innocent, at this stage it remains doubtful whether Abela can fully exercise his duties as a minister in a serene way. Anyone meeting him in his official capacity as minister cannot avoid entertaining the thought that he might be consorting with an accomplice of a bank heist.

A paradox with no easy solution

This is why the issue remains tricky and has no easy solution: the paradox was further compounded when in court, procedures on the libel suit instituted against Jason Azzopardi saw the presiding magistrate telling Carmelo Abela that it fell upon him to prove whether Azzopardi’s allegations are true or not. In an inversion of the burden of proof on statements of fact, the magistrate accepted that Azzopardi’s claims on Facebook were fair comment and that it should be Abela to disprove it.

So if Abela had nothing to do with the case, how exactly is he expected to prove his innocence? And then again... why does he not file a libel against the Degorgio brothers in a bid to call their bluff?

Ultimately if Abela is guilty of complicity in a bank heist as alleged by the Degiorgio brothers, his persistence in the Cabinet would go in history as the greatest affront to democratic institutions. If innocent of this heinous crime, entertaining the thought that he is guilty is itself a grave injustice to Carmelo Abela and the institutions he serves.

Ultimately it is Robert Abela who must weigh the scales in deliberating between the risk, however small, of harbouring a criminal in his Cabinet and that of giving in to criminals and punishing an innocent man.