Darren Debono it-Topo’s testimony in a case concerning a failed 2010 bank heist was postponed for a second time on Friday, as lawyers argued over his admissibility as a witness.

They argued that Debono - the star witness in the case against Vince Muscat il-Koħħu - cannot testify in a criminal case as he is currently interdicted after being convicted of perjury in 2017. 

Muscat stands accused of aggravated theft and attempted homicide in the botched HSBC bank heist.

The two men were initially co-accused in the case. But that changed earlier this month, when Debono agreed to testify against Muscat in exchange for having the attempted homicide charges against him dropped. He is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the attempted robbery.

Both men were charged with the crime just months after three men wearing wigs and fake moustaches walked into HSBC Bank headquarters in Qormi and demanded money.

Police officers foiled the attempted robbery, which ended with a full-blown gunfight and two injured police officers, but were unable to stop the three thieves from getting away in a getaway car.

Debono was initially slated to testify on January 19, but his testimony was put off after he was placed in quarantine.

The star witness was similarly absent when the court reconvened on Friday. Instead, Muscat’s lawyers argued that Debono cannot testify in the case, due to him having been interdicted when a court found him guilty of falsifying evidence.

Muscat’s lawyer Franco Debono told the court that they would take this objection to the country’s highest court if it was not upheld.

The defence team also made a number of other requests of the magistrate’s court: that the police inspector who led the case against Debono in that false evidence case be allowed to testify first; that they be allowed face-to-face contact with their client in prison; and that Debono, if he is to testify, do so in one sitting, without interruptions.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that the magistrate’s court had been given explicit instructions by the criminal court to hear Debono’s testimony and send proceedings back there, without delay. The magistrate’s court had limited powers in this case, lawyers from the attorney general’s office argued.

Magistrate Vella took note of those various submissions and said she would deliver a decree about them in due course. She however said that she would be advising the prison director to allow Muscat and his lawyers to meet directly in prison.

The case resumes on February 3.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Roberto Montalto represented Muscat. 

Inspector Joseph Mercieca and attorney general lawyers Giannella Busuttil and Francesco Refalo prosecuted. 

Live blog

Live blog ends

3.45pm That's all from us today. We were due to hear from the case's star witness, but leave none the wiser. 

Thank you for having joined us. We will have a summary of the day's key points available at the top of this article shortly. 

No Topo today

3.30pm Darren Debono it-Topo will not testify today - and we're not even sure whether he will testify in the next scheduled hearing, on February 3 at 9.30am.

On that date, the magistrate will decree on the defence's three requests: to have another witness, Norbert Ciappara, testify first; to have Debono struck off as a witness; and for Debono, if he is to testify, to do so in one sitting. 

Good news for the defence's prison visits

3.28pm Magistrate Vella recommends that the director of prisons allows defence lawyers direct contact with their client. 

Prosecutors try to object but their protestations are quickly shot down by the court. 

The clock is ticking 

3.22pm Prosecutors have repeatedly noted that the law sets a one-month limit on the witness [it-Topo] being heard. That means his testimony must be completed by February 6. 

Complaint about prison visit system

3.12pm Muscat's lawyers have one last issue they want to raise: the fact that they have to speak to their client through perspex and a phone at prison. 

They're not comfortable discussing sensitive matters in that way, Montalto tells the court, and would like the director of prisons to allow face-to-face contact again. 

It's an objection that has been raised in another high-profile case recently, by lawyers representing Yorgen Fenech. 

Minuting objections

3.04pm The two sides minute their perspectives, with the attorney general's lawyer quoting from the criminal court's decree in the case for the magistrate's court to "hear this witness [It-Topo] and that court must then send the records back". 

The defence says it wants Ciappara to testify first, with it-Topo, if he is allowed to testify, doing so in one go. 

Let down by technology 

2.54pm An audio recorder that is usually used to record legal arguments was not switched on from the very start, it seems. 

The magistrate reassures the defence that she remembers their various arguments - sparing them from having to repeat them from the beginning.

 A bone of contention

2.52pm Lawyers on both sides are burrowing deep into court procedure as they make their arguments. We're sparing you the legalese. 

The key bone of contention concerns the powers of the magistrate's court in this case.

Defence lawyers argue that the court has all the powers of a court of criminal inquiry and can hear all witnesses.

Prosecutors say that a higher court has already issued a bill of indictment and that the magistrate's court is tasked only with hearing the testimony of Darren Debono it-Topo.  

The defence's witness is a police inspector

2.36pm As the lawyers make their arguments, the defence reveals who its witness is: inspector Norbert Ciappara, who handled the case that led to it-Topo being interdicted.

Interdiction, if you are not familiar with the term as used in Maltese law, disqualifies a person from serving in public office or employment. General interdiction relates to all public roles, while special interdiction bars a person from specific jobs or roles. 

One and done

2.29pm The defence says that if Darren Debono it-Topo is to testify, he should do so in a single session, from start to finish.

The prosecution says it has no objection to that.

Debono's testimony and cross-examination could take hours, and it's already 2.30pm: if the court agrees to that, Debono might end up testifying on another day.

AG pushes back

2.14pm Magistrate Vella takes note of the defence's arguments, including its request to have another witness testify first. That witness will speak about the eligibility of Debono to testify. 

AG lawyer Giannella Busuttil tells the court that the list of witnesses must be presented to the criminal courts through a court application after a bill of indictment is issued. And that's what the prosecution did, she says. 

The defence insists they only asked for Debono to be added to the list just before the trial began.

Interdiction argument

2.09pm Muscat's defence team insist that it-Topo's interdiction means he cannot testify in the case - and they say they will seek a constitutional reference if the court does not agree with them. 

The law states that a person targeted by interdiction can not testify except in a court of law. So he could not testify at a regional tribunal but then testify in a far more serious case, argued Koħħu’s lawyer.

They were prepared to challenge this before the constitutional courts, if Debono was admitted as a witness, lawyer Franco Debono stressed.

Here's what we've found. Article 109 of Malta's criminal code states that: The court shall, in passing sentence against the offender for any crime referred to in this sub-title, expressly award the punishment of general interdiction, as well as interdiction from acting as witness, except in a court of law, or from acting as referee in any case whatsoever.

And here's a screenshot of it, for your reference.

Article 109 of Malta's criminal code;.Article 109 of Malta's criminal code;.

Defence wants another witness 

2pm The defence wants another witness to testify before Darren Debono it-Topo does. 

"We spoke to the inspector [about it]," Montalto says. 

They also believe it-Topo should be disqualified as a witness. Muscat's other lawyer, Franco Debono, argues that it-Topo has been interdicted and also has a previous conviction for lying under oath.

Case begins 

1.57pm Magistrate Vella says proceedings can begin. Roberto Montalto - one of Muscat's lawyers - begins with some preliminary arguments. 

Meanwhile, we now know who will be assisting inspector Joseph Mercieca. It's Giannella Busuttil and Francesco Refalo, both from the attorney general's office. 

Vince Muscat brought into court

1.54pm The defendant, Vince Muscat, has been escorted into the courtroom. He's wearing a dark blue suit, and sunglasses despite being indoors.

 A case laced with political intrigue

1.48pm It’s rare for a crime that occurred 12 years ago to get as much media attention as this one.

But this is a case unlike most others.

Apart from remaining unsolved, it has also been tarred with allegations that top politicians – namely former minister Chris Cardona and current minister Carmelo Abela – were in some way involved in it. Both have denied any link to the crime.       

Who are the key players? 

1.40pm While we wait, here's a look at the key figures in the case so far. 

The defendant: Vince Muscat il-Koħħu. Muscat will be represented by lawyers Franco Debono and Roberto Montalto.

The witness: Darren Debono it-Topo. He is represented a trio of lawyers in Edward Gatt, Mark Vassallo and Ishmael Psaila. 

The prosecutor: inspector Joseph Mercieca. We expect Mercieca to be joined by a representative from the attorney general’s office.

The magistrate: Monica Vella. 

Vince Muscat, known as il-Koħħu. Photo: Jason BorgVince Muscat, known as il-Koħħu. Photo: Jason Borg

Delays in court

1.36pm The case was scheduled to begin at 12.30pm, but a backlog of cases has pushed that time back considerably. 

Journalists are gathered outside magistrate Monica Vella's courtroom, waiting to be called in. We're told that will happen soon.

Familiar names

1.33pm Vince Muscat is a familiar name to anyone with a passing knowledge of Maltese current affairs: il-Koħħu, as he is known, is serving a 15-year sentence for the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia after he reached his own deal with prosecutors, agreeing to testify about that murder and the 2015 killing of lawyer Carmel Chircop. 

Darren Debono is also used to being mentioned in the news, though he is not to be confused with his namesake, the former international footballer who now faces money laundering charges. 


1.29pm Good afternoon and welcome to this live blog. We’ll be giving you minute-by-minute updates from the Valletta courtroom where this case will be heard.

It-Topo was originally due to testify in the case nine days ago, but that hearing was postponed after he was ordered into quarantine. We now expect him to testify today. 

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