Three suspected drug traffickers were released from preventive custody on Thursday after a magistrates’ court declared at the end of a lengthy and hotly contested arraignment that their arrest was invalid.

Melchior Portelli, 24, and a 17-year old youth from Marsa, who told the court that they “washed a car here and there” to earn a living, together with 24-year old Loredana Agius from Valletta who works as a cleaner, were jointly charged with drug trafficking and aggravated possession of cocaine and heroin.

The two men were also charged with money laundering.

They were arrested in a complex operation on Tuesday evening when police officers zeroed in on a stable at Triq it-Tigrija and a house at Triq is-Serkin, both in Marsa.

The arrests were made on the strength of confidential information about suspect drug trafficking activity at the premises.

The officers found a cache of drugs and cash, the court was told.

Inside the house where the three suspects were arrested there were drugs “all over the place,” said prosecuting Inspector Justine Grech, describing a drug-filled glass in a cabinet on the staircase, drug sachets inside a bedroom, more sachets in a bathroom and 148 cocaine sachets allegedly disposed of down an inner shaft along with a key to a Mercedes car.

Some 16 cocaine sachets were also found on Melchior’s person.

A fourth person, a woman, who fell ill and fainted when police entered the house, was given medical assistance by an ambulance team.

Meanwhile, officers raiding the four-roomed stable came across a sort-of control room, monitored by CCTV cameras.

Some 91 sachets of cocaine were spread on the surface of a bench.

A horse and a pitbull were found inside the other stable rooms.

The validity of the arrests was contested by defence lawyer Franco Debono in view of the fact that no search and arrest warrant had been produced during the raids.

Although the prosecution claimed that a magisterial warrant had definitely been issued in respect of the minor, the warrant never featured during the raids.

Inspector Grech insisted that the police had acted on confidential information and had to carry out the raids concurrently for fear that important evidence might be lost, adding that she had been involved in the raid at the stable while her colleagues focused on the house.

The prosecutor insisted that all suspects had been informed of their rights, including the right to seek legal assistance, medical help and the right to silence, even though she was not personally present to witness it.

“Their right to a fair trial was not prejudiced,” argued Grech.

But Debono persisted in questioning whether and how those legal rights had actually been explained to the suspects, stressing further that when the house raid actually kicked off no warrant was at hand.

As for the list of rights, Debono insisted that a copy had only been given, if at all, to two of the suspects and that happened much later when all three had been escorted to the lock-up.

After a suspension of the sitting and additional submissions by both parties, Magistrate Josette Demicoli declared the arrests invalid.

The law clearly laid down that an arrest warrant, once issued, had to be handed to the arrested person at the earliest opportunity, she said.

In this case, while the minor was told of the reason for his arrest, the warrant to date had not yet materialised.

As for Portelli and Agius, no warrant had been issued in their regard and the court was not shown evidence to prove that they were told the reason for their arrest.

The prosecuting officer was not at the same premises where the three were arrested that night.

Following that pronouncement, all three pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The court issued a ban on personal details of the minor.

The case continues. Lawyers Marion Camilleri and Francesca Zarb also assisted the accused. 

Following that arraignment a fourth suspect,  Luke Orsini, was arraigned separately over charges of aggravated possession of drugs.

He was arrested at the stable on Tuesday night when a team of officers headed by superintendent Keith Arnaud, who now also heads the Drug Squad, took the suspect by surprise shortly after he emerged from the stable.

His arrest was deemed valid in this case and his lawyer Matthew Xuereb requested bail. 

Bail was granted against a deposit of €500 and a personal guarantee of €8000, among other conditions.



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