William Agius imprisonment: Justice minister open to a constructive debate

Wiliiam Agius was sentenced to three years imprisonment on Monday after pleading guilty to drug trafficking, a crime for which he was arrested in 2004 

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici
Justice Minister Owen Bonnici

 

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has said he is “open to a constructive debate” following the sentencing to three years’ imprisonment of William Agius, who pleaded guilty to ecstasy trafficking in a case dating back to 2004.

Agius, who was 18 at the time, was arrested 14 years ago, along with his drug supplier Geordie Felice, close to San Bastjan parish church in Qormi, in what was at the time the biggest-ever ecstasy drug haul.

He was on Monday accused before judge Antonio Mizzi, of aggravated possession, association and drug trafficking, and admitted to all three charges. Agius faced a minimum punishment of four years' imprisonment and a maximum of 20 years. However, the judge chose to give a lesser jail term, in line with what the magistrate's court could give, which was possible due to an amendment to the law. Mizzi handed Agius a three-year prison term and fined him €3,000.

Agius, who has since been rehabilitated and has been off drugs for several years, was recently in the news amid arguments that sending him to prison would only serve to destroy the progress he had made in his life.

Bonnici told MaltaToday that a balance has to be found between the deterrent at law for serious cases of drug trafficking and giving ex-drug addicts a second chance.

The 2015 reform sought this balance by giving magistrates discretion as to whether they should hand down jail terms for people involved in drug cases of a less serious nature.

But judges were also granted discretion to apply lower penalties despite the seriousness of the cases in front of them, Bonnici added.

“What is being demanded now is extending the discretion not to impose a prison term to judges dealing with the more serious cases involving drug pushing,” he said.

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon in November 2004 when three young men were surprised by the police next to the Qormi primary school.

The San Bastjan area was swarmed by police officers from the drugs squad. They had been observing the men’s movements for a while.

The police raid yielded more than 2,000 ecstasy tablets, in what was described then as the largest haul ever of ecstasy pills. The market value of the drugs stood at €21,000.

Among the three arrested men was 18-year-old William Agius from Zabbar.

The youngster was himself battling a drug problem while acting as the go-between in the drug running operation. He risked a very long time in prison.

But last Monday, 13 years after that fateful afternoon in Qormi, Agius was handed down a three-year jail term by Judge Antonio Mizzi.

It was a lenient sentence for a drug trafficker. The judge went below the minimum four-year jail threshold based on legal amendments introduced in 2015.

Serious drug trafficking cases like that of Agius are heard before a judge in a trial by jury. Jail terms are stiffer than those reserved for less serious cases heard in front of magistrates.

However, the 2015 changes to the law allowed judges to adopt jail term thresholds as those awarded by magistrates in certain circumstances.

Now, a 31-year-old man, Agius is a reformed drug addict, who has for the past decade helped others to fight their drug problem.

Agius pleaded guilty to all the charges last Monday when he appeared in front of the judge. Several people, including those who worked with him at Caritas, testified on Agius’s good character and how he had changed his ways.

In the weeks leading to the trial, Agius had appealed for a more humane law that does away with prison terms for reformed drug addicts. His call was backed by workers in the field of drug rehabilitation.

The judge took this into consideration when delivering judgment but his hands were tied as to imposing an effective prison term.

The issue has long been a bone of contention for rehab professionals, who argue that sending a reformed drug addict to prison is akin to sending the person back into the lion’s den.

The 2015 drug law reform did address this issue for the less serious cases that are heard by magistrates. These cases could also include drug trafficking of minimal amounts.

But Agius’s case fell outside these parameters and the judge had no option but to jail him.

Former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil tweeted his dismay at the situation: “There is no point in sending a long-reformed drug addict to jail after so many years. He is already reformed. The system is wrong and society is failing him.”

Busuttil was reflecting the views of many, who could see no point in sending a changed man to a place where he could be tempted to fall back into the habit.

Others were less cavalier in their attitude. After all, Agius was caught trafficking large amounts and although his case took 13 years to be judged, part of the reason for the length of time were several contestations, including a constitutional court case, which he filed and lost.

Joe Giglio, Agius’s lawyer, acknowledged the length of time for justice to be served was not entirely the court’s fault and described the judge’s decision as a significant development.

Agius may yet benefit from prison leave to continue helping drug victims but the leniency of the punishment has not stopped calls for renewed legal reforms.

The justice minister has confirmed he is “open to a constructive debate on the matter”.

But for people who work in the drug rehab scene the decision is clear – judges should also have the discretion not to send reformed drug addicts to prison.

In comments to the media in the aftermath of Monday’s judgment, Charles Miceli, who spent years working with drug addicts, reiterated his belief that people like Agius should not be imprisoned.

The country has to have an alternative to imprisonment in these circumstances, Miceli said.

The debate is unlikely to go away any time soon. More drug addicts will follow Agius’s path.

But as Agius starts serving his jail term one thing is clear: society has become more receptive to the complexity of the drug problem that extends beyond the ‘war on drugs’ language of just a few years ago.

Whether this will lead to further change has yet to be seen.

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