Opposition MPs question government motivation in fast-tracking amendments to freezing orders law

MP Karol Aquilina questions who government is trying to protect by amending the law, hinting at former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina
Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina

Nationalist MPs have questioned government’s fast-tracking of amendments to the legal framework regulating freezing orders.

Addressing the House on Monday, MP Karol Aquilina questioned who the government is trying to protect, hinting at former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Speculation has been mounting that the former PM could be charged in connection with the fraudulent hospitals deal.

The new Act proposes a common procedure that ensures the proportionality of garnishee orders, freezing orders and confiscation orders in money laundering proceedings.

Garnishee orders in related proceedings will now be valid for six months and subject to variations as well as the release of funds to ensure a decent standard of living.

Prosecutors applying for freezing orders will now have to specify what property or how much money is to be frozen within 90 days of arraignment and the decision to uphold the requests for such an order will now be subject to appeal before the Criminal Court. As the law currently stands, persons subject to freezing orders are allowed to withdraw less than €13,000 annually.

Moreover, the amounts frozen may be varied upon a request by one of the parties and the defendant will be allowed to withdraw a maximum of the average annual salary, as determined by the Minister, in order to live a decent lifestyle.

Additionally, defendants struck by such orders will be able to ask the court to allow them to continue operating their business, trade or profession. Requests for withdrawals for recurring expenses, such as loans, insurance payments and school fees, which currently require applications to be filed and upheld for every such withdrawal, will now be made only once.

Aquilina, who is Opposition shadow spokesperson for justice, questioned why the amendments were not made available for public consultation.

The Nationalist MP raised specific doubts about the planned revisions to the procedures regulating seizure orders and freezing orders during his address. These are used by the authorities when they suspect someone is benefiting from the proceeds of crime, and currently, they are valid for six months, with the possibility of a further six-month extension. The draft limits seizure orders to no more than 6 months without a possible extension.

Aquilina, however, argued that the extension should only be authorized by a magistrate and insisted that those authorized to extend them should be obliged to justify them wherever necessary."

The proposed law requires the prosecution to specifically declare which properties or assets are to be frozen and sees freezing orders nullified if this doesn't occur within a 90-day period, with a possible extension of 90 days if authorized by the court.

Aquilina argued that this was a “perverse” logic, especially considering that individuals accused of having proceeds of money need to prove which of their assets were acquired legitimately, rather than the other way around. However, the law, he remarked, was demanding that the prosecution do the work of the defence.

Government MPs who spoke during the debate claimed critics were on an “inquisition”, defending the amendments.

They mentioned cases of suspects having their families caught up in the process, saying it was “unfair”.

They also defend the decision that the same provisions should not be applied to persons suspected of drug trafficking—an exception accepted by the Opposition.

Aquilina emphasized during his address that the same logic providing an exception for drug traffickers should also apply to individuals accused of corruption, 'because they too cause significant damage to society.'"

Zammit Lewis went as far as mentioning Giulio Carpegna, Malta’s last inquisitor before the French arrived, to drive home his point.

Minister Jonathan Attard denied claims that such amendments will weaken authorities’ capabilities in fighting corruption.