Police detention law change delayed after parliamentary mix-up

Opposition MPs did not attend a parliament committee meeting to approve a constitutional amendment to increase the police detention period by another 84 hours, but they insist that the meeting shouldn't have happened in the first place

A constitutional change to increase the police detention period has been delayed after Opposition MPs did not attend a parliamentary committee meeting to discuss the amendment.

Hours before the Consideration of Bills committee was scheduled to discuss the amendment, the Labour Party members of the committee were informed that there was no consensus on the part of the Opposition on the amendment.

The Opposition requested that the meeting be postponed.

Justice Minister Jonathan Attard and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri addressed a Labour Party press conference on Wednesday and criticised the Opposition for failing to bring forward any recommendations on the amendment.

“The government has always made itself available for discussion,” Attard said, “and not only did I personally ask the Opposition to come forward with its recommendations but also to submit their amendments.”

“But the Opposition’s stance is that it wants to continue discussions. This country cannot continue to be hostage to a fractured Opposition.”

Camilleri appealed to the Opposition to behave responsibly in this regard. “The public is realising how difficult it is to reach agreements over issues that require a two-thirds majority.”

Opposition files complaint in Parliament

After the Labour Party's press conference, Opposition whip Robert Cutajar filed a formal complaint during Wednesday's plenary over the matter. 

He explained that he had reached an informal agreement with Labour Minister Michael Farrugia, who chairs the Consideration of Bills committee, that the meeting would not go ahead if there is no agreement on the amendment with the Opposition spokesperson for justice.

Cutajar informed the committee clerk on Wednesday afternoon that there was no agreement, suggesting that the committee meeting would be cancelled. However, the meeting went ahead.

Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina confirmed this, saying that Wednesday's meeting went ahead behind the Opposition's back.

Michael Farrugia responded in Parliament, saying that there was no agreement that the scheduled meeting would not happen. He offered to show all committee correspondence to the Speaker. 

He also asked the Speaker for protection after Aquilina approached him after the committee and told him "I won't forget this" ("Inżommha fil-komma din.").

Aquilina defended himself, saying that it was unacceptable that the committee went ahead despite the agreement. 

48-hour detention period

The Bill under discussion concerns an extension of the police detention period for persons suspected of serious crimes.

Current laws allow for a 48-hour period of arrest, after which the suspect is either charged in court or released. The amendment would allow police to ask a magistrate to extend the initial 48 hours of arrest by another 48 hours. The magistrate would be obliged to make the decision within six hours.

Police can then ask for a second 24-hour extention, with the magistrate once again obliged to decide on the request within six hours.

The total additional hours spent under arrest above the initial 48 hours cannot exceed 84 hours. At the end of the second extension the suspect has to be either released or charged in court.

The Nationalist Party had suggested a 72-hour detention period as part of a wider set of anti-corruption Bills in 2022.

When discussing the amendment in Parliament, Opposition spokesperson for home affairs Joe Giglio said that the PN’s proposal strikes a fairer balance, arguing that five and a half days in detention is exaggerated.

Justice spokesperson Karol Aquilina similarly said that exaggerated amendments should be avoided.