Joseph Muscat pleads not guilty to corruption-related charges, freezing order imposed

In 10-hour arraignment, Joseph Muscat joins 13 other individuals and nine companies in denying serious offences relating to fraud, corruption and money laundering

A crowd of supporters went to Valletta for a 'solidarity gathering' for Joseph Muscat (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
A crowd of supporters went to Valletta for a 'solidarity gathering' for Joseph Muscat (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Joseph Muscat had his first day in court as a criminal defendant on Tuesday, pleading not guilty to corruption-related charges emanating from the inquiry into the Vitals hospitals deal.

The disgraced former prime minister was charged, together with 13 other individuals and nine companies with serious offences relating to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, in a gruelling 10-hour arraignment.

The case is a complex one, with at least 78 boxes of evidence that were gathered during Magistrate Gabriella Vella’s four-year inquiry, which had been initiated by anti-corruption NGO Repubblika.

So complex, in fact, that the charges took over an hour to be read out. That was followed by the defendants confirming their particulars to the court deputy registrar and, after that, their pleas. All 14 defendants pleaded not guilty.

A couple of police witnesses testified about the searches conducted during the inquiry, revealing little in the way of useful information to either side. The bulk of the sitting was taken up by arguments about the multi-million euro freezing orders requested by the Attorney General and a surprise request, under a rarely-used article of the criminal code, to prohibit the defendants from writing on the internet or speaking to the media about the case while it is still ongoing.

The defendants’ lawyers - what seemed to be all 26 of them, in sequence - asked the prosecution to justify the amounts of money they were requesting to be frozen. The prosecution’s legally correct, if slightly mischievous, reply was that the answers the lawyers were seeking were to be found in the 78 boxes of evidence, which the defence lawyers had not yet been allowed access to.

Equally lengthy were the legal arguments about the order prohibiting the parties from discussing the case in public.

In the end, the court rejected the request for the order at this stage, unless evidence emerged that any of the defendants were attempting to interfere or influence the proceedings by those means.

The magistrate, however, made it clear that the evidence was to only be accessible to the lawyers and the parties, as stated by the law.

In anticipation of the argument that publication of the evidence was in the interest of the public, the magistrate said : “the public interest that needs to be protected is the correct administration of justice and not the revelation of the evidence collected during the inquiry.” The court prohibited the parties or their lawyers from passing on any documents or evidence from the case file.

While it did not prohibit the defendants from travelling abroad, the court imposed a €25,000 personal guarantee on every defendant to ensure their attendance for future sittings.