[WATCH] Justice minister: Attorney General should not be Sherlock Holmes

On Xtra this evening, Owen Bonnici discussed the Attorney General, the rule of law and the upcoming Constitutional Convention

Justice minister Owen Bonnici stressed that the attorney general's role was not that of an investigator
Justice minister Owen Bonnici stressed that the attorney general's role was not that of an investigator

Justice minister Owen Bonnici has reiterated the government’s position, that calls for the resignation of attorney general Peter Grech are unjustified, since the role he occupies is not an investigative one. “The attorney general is not some Sherlock Holmes,” said the minister.

Bonnici was a guest on current affairs programme Xtra, hosted by Saviour Balzan, where he was asked how he responded to criticism and calls for the AG's resignation, which have increased since the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Balzan added that he felt the criticism was rooted in the fact that the public felt the AG abdicated on his responsibility to investigate the revelations from the Panama Papers.

“The attorney general does not have an investigative role and anyone saying that the AG should have done something but didn’t - I’m sorry to say - does not know the law, or understand how our legal system works,” he said, stressing that there were other entities that had the responsibility to investigate.  

Bonnici said that ultimately the AG’s role was to offer the government legal advise.

“In criminal proceedings, he has a certain role, a role which however comes into play once a person has been charged in court, not before,” he added.

Despite the minister’s explanation, shadow minister Jason Azzopardi, speaking on the phone, insisted that under the present administration, the AG, as well as the police commissioner, no longer served their function. This, he said, had nothing to do with who they had been appointed by.

The point is that today they no longer serve their function. The point is that the AG, in cases of money laundering, is the only one that has powers under the Money Laundering Act…to request that the criminal court carries out an investigation,” said Azzopardi.

“It is evident that these people are not being allowed to, or do not want to, carry out their role without looking at the person’s face.”

But Bonnici pushed back against Azzopardi’s claims, explaining that what Azzopardi was referring to was a provision in the Money Laundering Act that allowed the AG to request an “investigation order” in suspicions of money laundering.

“It is called an investigation order but it is a misnomer,” explained the minister. “The AG in that case has the right to ask the court to draw up a list of the suspect’s assets. Now, the FIAU already has this power, without having to request it from the courts.”

Bonnici went on to say that, in the cases concerning tourism minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri, the FIAU had already done so, and had passed their findings on to the police.

“The Attorney General has nothing to do with investigations, and Azzopardi’s criticism is unjust, and he knows it because he knows the law,” added Bonnici.

“Once the director prepares his report, it is passed on to the police for them to determine what investigations were required.”

Moreover, he said that suspicion of having committed a crime was not enough for the police to take an individual to court, since, in the absence of evidence, that person could never be found guilty. Furthermore, he said that evidence were to then come to light, that person could no longer be tried, because of the principle of double jeopardy.

Malta and the European Prosecutor's Office

Turning to last week’s European Parliament debate on the rule of law in Malta, Balzan pointed out that while Commission vice president Frans Timmermans, had sounded a note of caution, and called for the investigations to be allowed to run their course, he also told the government to reconsider its position to stay out of the newly set up European Prosecutors Office.

“We had a parliamentary agreement, between both sides of the house, that we would not be a part of the office because of issues of subsidiarity; because we feel that certain issues should be decided upon on a level closer to the people - the national level,” he said, adding that the EPO’s mission statement was that of investigating instances of fraud involving EU funds.

Bonnici said that while the idea was initially to have a single prosecutor, over time it had been decided on a collegial model where each member nominates a representative and decisions are taking collectively.

“With this model, I no longer have the reservations I had,” said Bonnici. “I think that today it makes for Malta to be a part of the European Prosecutors Office.”

He said Malta had not been the only country to voice reservations, adding that Holland had now decided to join the EPO, while Sweden, for example was still refusing to do so.

Watch the full episode above

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