Updated | MP challenges justice minister to recommend pardon for drug offender

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi says justice minister Owen Bonnici should recommend presidential pardon if he truly believes a person was unjustly jailed for being found in possession of drugs

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi
Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi

Adds justice minister's speech

Amendments to the criminal code in order to have court sentences reflect the law, introduce harsher penalties, introduce new crimes such as stalking and improve court efficiency were welcomed by opposition MP Jason Azzopardi.

However, addressing Parliament, the MP said “playing to the crowd or creating confusion is no solution. It would be an error which would be a disservice to the administration of justice.”

In reaction to justice minister Owen Bonnici recent speech in Parliament, in which he read an email by a person who felt hard done after being jailed for six-months for being found in possession of drugs, Azzopardi challenged the minister to recommend presidential pardons in such cases.

Accusing the justice minister of “cheap politics,” Azzopardi added that if Bonnici was convinced that the jailed person had suffered an injsutice, he should reccomend a presidential pardon.

However, the MP insisted that the person quoted by Bonnici was convicted of trafficking and not only possession. 

Maltese laws recognise two kinds of possession; simple possession or possession for personal use, and aggravated possession or possession under circumstances where it appears that the possession was not for the offender`s exclusive use. 

Simple possession, if tried in the Court of Magistrates, may be liable to 3-12 months imprisonment and/or a fine of €470-€2,350.  If it is tried in the Criminal Court, the sentence range is 1-10 years in prison and a fine of €470 - €23,500.

Possession not for the offender`s exclusive use is punished in the same way as trafficking, and carries a punishment of discretionary life imprisonment if convicted in the Criminal Court.  If the court considers, taking various factors into consideration, that life is inappropriate, or if the jury verdict was not unanimous, the sentence may be between 4-30 years in prison and a fine of  2350 - €118,000. If the conviction is in the Court of Magistrates, the offence is liable to 6 months – 10 years in prison with a fine of €470-€11,800.

The minister had said that “society did not gain anything” by incarcerating the accused and Azzopardi told the minister “are you ready to put your money where your mouth is? You have the power to reccommend a presidential pardon. Wiill you use this power?”

“And if you are prepared to use this power, what is the cut off point? What jail terms would justify a pardon? Will it apply to married persons or to parents? And how many children must one have?” Azzopardi asked.

Addressing Bonnici, the MP said “Will you walk the talk? Will you bite the bullet?...If you do not believe that the case does not merit a pardon why did you raise the case to confuse people?”

Explaining that the minister’s words created a perception that persons were being jailed for simple drug possession, Azzopardi accused Bonnici of being artificial.

“I believe court delays are wrong but the minsiter who is right in attempting to introduce measures to increase efficiency, but its wrong to play with feelings on such a delicate matter and a plague to society.”

Two weeks ago, Bonnici presented a bill proposing amendments to the criminal code, which he said would include a series of changes aimed at “improving the justice system in qualitative and quantitative terms.”

Noting that government had already introduced a number of measures to improve the judiciary system he acknowledged that the situation at court “is still far from ideal.”

Among the proposals, Bonnici highlighted changes to the classification of conduct certificates issued by the police, an IT system to avoid unnecessary waste of time when court cases are postponed and a provision that would allow court to proceed with minor criminal cases in absentia of accused parties, who will however have the right to appeal.

Moreover, the minister had told Parliament that clear guidelines would be introduced over the decision whether drug related cases would be heard by civil or criminal courts.

Law needs to be changed 

On his part, Bonnici said that he was glad the opposition would vote in favour of the amendments and expressed hope that the two sides of the House would cooperate to fine tune the amendments.

In reaction to Azzopardi’s challenge to recommend a pardon, Bonniici said that he read the email and apologised to the man who had to wait nine years to have his case concluded “strengthens my resolve to reform the system.”

“I have the duty to offer a second chance to young persons who have a drug habit,” he said, adding that the judiciary was not at fault but “it is the law which needs to be changed.”

“I do not want to give a pardon to this young man but I want to offer hope to these young persons and give courts the right tools to help genuine drug victims to get rid of their habit and reform themselves,” Bonnici said. 

First time drug offenders

In his speech today, Azzopardi said that first time drug offenders should not be processed in court but “should be formally warned by the Attorney General.

Explaining that the proposal first tabled by former justice minister carm Mifsud Bonnici in 2011 had been endorsed by civil society organisations, the police and the AG, Azzopardi said that this should strictly apply for anyone found in possession of drugs for personal use.

He also noted that the former minister had proposed the creation of a consultative council on drug abuse and rehabilitation, which should be appointed by the justice minister.

Moreover, the AG should also have the authority to refer the persons found in possession of drugs to attend rehabilitation programmes upon the evaluation of the consultative council on drug abuse and rehabilitation.

“According to the proposal, the AG should only have the authority to issue a formal warning if the police commissioner proves that the accused has committed an illegality, if the alleged illegality is punishable by court, if the accused admits to committing an illegality and if it is not in the public interest to arraign the accused.”

In addition, if the accused is a minor, the warning should be issued in the presence of the individual’s parents or legal guardians.

Labour to blame for “untouchable” judiciary
The justice minister had also warned that if things do not improve in terms of court efficiency, he may decide to inform Parliament about magistrates and judges who are not delivering.

In reaction to this warning, Azzopardi said that discipline needed to be installed at court, he argued that the majority of the judiciary members go beyond their call of duty, “with some even starting work at 8:30am instead of 9am.”

“However, Labour is guily of creating a perception that these are some kind of gods, sacred cows and untouchables because in the two instances in which an impeachment motion  against a mber of the judiciary was presented in Parliament, Labour voted against or did its utmost to block the motion.”