Updated 4.50pm with Fearne comments

Robert Abela confirmed on Wednesday that he still hopes to nominate Chris Fearne to serve as European Commissioner if he can clear his name in court within two weeks.

The former deputy prime minister resigned two months ago when he was charged with fraud in connection with the Vitals hospitals deal.

While strenuously denying the charges, he also asked the prime minister to drop plans to nominate him to the European Commission.

Fearne says he was left in the dark about government negotiations with Vitals and Steward and he had subsequently resisted Steward attempts to amend the concession until contract conditions were observed.   

On Wednesday the prime minister was asked whether he would consider Fearne once more if he was cleared by the courts.   

“I absolutely do not exclude that. Actually, it is a possibility and one of the likeliest probabilities,” Abela said. “I will wait until July 24 to have a clear picture of the facts."  

The prime minister speaking on Wednesday.

Magistrate Leonard Caruana is due to decide on July 24 whether there is enough prima facie evidence for the criminal case to continue.   

Earlier this month, Times of Malta revealed that Fearne was the main target of a well-financed smear campaign bankrolled by Steward Health Care, the company that took over the hospitals concession from Vitals when Fearne was health minister.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, Abela said a Nationalist Party court case  against Fearne was worse.

He was referring to a case PN leader Bernard Grech and his predecessor Adrian Delia instituted late last year calling on the State Advocate to recover funds defrauded through the hospitals deal.

“There is no comparison between the smear campaign and the PN court case,” Abela said. “There is no comparison between the cruelty of the PN case and the attack revealed in the last few days.”

He said the PN were suing him (the prime minister) and Fearne personally for €400 million.

If the PN wins that case, the State Advocate would be bound to take Fearne to court and seize all his wealth, Abela said.

One attack is coming from a hidden hand, but the PN’s “cruel” attack is a full-frontal assault on Fearne, Abela added. 

Asked if he thought the smear campaign against the former prime minister was coming from a government official of the time, Abela said: “I don’t speak about speculation, only facts.”

Fearne: Let's wait for court 

When contacted by Times of Malta, Fearne declined to speculate on his political future. 

"Court proceedings are still ongoing," he said. "It is therefore ethically correct and respectful to the rule of law to allow the magistrate to deliberate serenely and without undue pressure.

"Once the decision is handed down I will see what the way forward is." 

PN: Unacceptable pressure on the courts

In a statement, the Nationalist Party said the prime minister's remarks amounted to unacceptable pressure on the courts, particularly the magistrate hearing the case against Fearne. 

Karol Aquilina, shadow minister for justice, said Robert Abela had not learnt anything from the June elections and was again trying to interfere in the course of justice.

Instead of backing prosecutors who were acting on behalf of the state, he was pressuring the magistrate, burdening him with the decision on who would be nominated to become European Commissioner. 

"Robert Abela should stop playing games with the judicial system and should stop playing with posts which are very important for Malta's international reputation."

He also needed to put the people's interests before partisan interests. 

Aquilina pointed out that Fearne had, along with the rest of the Joseph Muscat Cabinet, been found responsible for having created a climate of impunity that facilitated the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Robert Abela knew well enough that despite what the magistrate could decide, nothing would alter the fact that Fearne had backed, through words and action, the obscenities of the Labour government since 2013. 

The judiciary should be allowed to work in serenity and the prime minister needed to make his political decision on the nomination of EU commissioner in the national, not partisan interest.

He should also withdraw his remarks and apologise for the harm done to the judiciary over the past months.  

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