Toni Bezzina abused his position and coerced workers into signing false declaration, court says

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has been cleared of making false and defamatory statements about Nationalist MP Anthony Bezzina

Nationalist MP Toni Bezzina had sued Joseph Muscat for libel in 2015
Nationalist MP Toni Bezzina had sued Joseph Muscat for libel in 2015

A court of Magistrates has cleared the Prime Minister of making false and defamatory statements about PN MP Anthony Bezzina when he told a public meeting that Bezzina had forced government workers to sign a false declaration.

Bezzina had sued Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for libel in 2015, following a speech made by Muscat at the Zurrieq Labour Party club, in which it was alleged that an inquiry had discovered how Bezzina had coerced employees of the Public Works department into signing a declaration stating that they had not been used to carry out works inside the Zurrieq PN club during their work hours, in 2012.

Bezzina had been employed as an architect by the Public Works Department at the time and was President of the sectional committee of the PN in Zurrieq. It emerged that the PN club in the locality needed painting ahead of the Local Council elections of 2012 and Bezzina had asked the foreman of his department to find him some workers who would be prepared to do the necessary works after hours.
The works were carried out using materials he had provided and took three afternoons to complete.

The interior decorators had refused payment.

But after Maltese language paper Kulhadd ran a story claiming that the works had been carried out during work hours, Bezzina was asked to provide an explanation. He had summoned the three workmen to his office to sign a declaration that they had completed the works after their working  hours.

The workers’ foreman had asked them to sign a declaration stating that they had not been carrying out the works on government time, but one was reluctant to do so as it stated that they had gone there of their own free will, when in fact, they had been asked to go. He was eventually convinced to go.

Under cross-examination, one of the workmen denied taking an oath on the declaration, saying he had only signed it after being pushed into doing so. The other men gave similar versions of events.

After they signed the declaration, two of the workers had gone to make an affidavit in which they denied going voluntarily and that they had acted on the orders of their foreman. A board of inquiry had noted that the men were fearful of their superiors and had felt constrained to sign the declaration. One of the men had gone to sign the declaration right after attending his mother’s funeral, noted the Board, which eventually recommended that clear working hours be laid out and assertiveness training be given to vulnerable workers.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale, deciding the libel case, noted that the Prime Minister was duty bound to bring questionable behaviour of elected officials to light. Bezzina was a person elected to represent the interests of the people and had abused his position to force workers to do private work for free as well as sign documents denying this.

Therefore there was nothing defamatory in the article, said the magistrate, dismissing the suit.

Bezzina to consider appeal

In a statement issued following the sentence, Bezzina said he would be considering whether or not to appeal the sentence. He pointed out that the courts had already decided two other libel suits against the Labour Party's media houses and had decided against him in one and in his favour in the other.

Bezzina also questioned how the government would be handling the case of minister Carmelo Abela, who was alleged to have engaged government workers to do works on his private home during working hours.

Labour Party asks what action will be taken

In response, the Labour Party said that PN leader Adrian Delia now needed to state what he would be doing about Bezzina, given that the courts had confirmed that he abused his public position. It said that if Delia truly believed in a new way, he should take action against Bezzina  immediately.