Judges will be encouraged to mete out a life sentence to those found guilty of murder with “femicidal circumstances”, according to a reform being unveiled on Wednesday.  

A draft law will be tabled in parliament which introduces the concept of femicide to Malta’s criminal code. 

The bill lays out circumstances when a homicide, or the attempted offence, was carried out because of a woman or girl’s gender.  

These new ‘femicidal circumstances’ will be used to limit the judiciary's discretion when it comes to sentencing.   

The reform also addresses the ‘crime of passion’ defence in such cases, which is often used to secure softer sentencing.  

Killing a person based on their gender is already an aggravated offence in Maltese law so the reform does not make femicide its own crime.

Instead, the reform is intended to encourage the judiciary to fork out the harshest possible sentence in cases that fit these new femicidal circumstances. 

The issue of femicide - the killing of a person because they are a woman or girl - was thrust into the national spotlight following the murder of 29-year-old Paulina Dembska who was raped and strangled at Sliema’s Independence Garden early on January 2.

Forbidding 'crime of passion' defences

Times of Malta is informed that the reform will also seek to address the issue of crime of passion in femicidal murders.  

At present, a person charged with murder can argue that they experienced a "sudden passion" and acted under "heat of blood", with no deliberate intention of killing.

This has played out in court in the past when, for instance, the accused claims to have discovered that his partner is having an affair and kills her. 

The alleged lack of intent can be used by the defence as a mitigating factor to secure a more lenient sentence of between five and 20 years instead of life in prison for homicide.  The same is true for attempted murder. 

Paulina Dembska, who was killed on January 2. Her murder has sparked a renewed push for femicide to be legally recognised.Paulina Dembska, who was killed on January 2. Her murder has sparked a renewed push for femicide to be legally recognised.

This was the case in 2004 when Marco Zarb, at the time 23-year-old, was sentenced to eight years in prison when jurors declared that he had committed a crime of passion when he tried to kill his partner Georgina Borg by throwing her off a third-floor balcony in Gozo. 

The reform being presented for parliamentary debate seeks to remove the possibility of crime of passion being used as a mitigating factor if a murder, or the attempted crime, fits the bill of a femicide.

How the reform was drafted 

Prime Minister Robert Abela announced the reform in a Facebook post on Tuesday, saying femicide would be introduced as a concept in the criminal code. 

He said Cabinet had agreed to the change as part of amendments to “strengthen our fight against gender-based violence”.

It is understood that the reform was drafted by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and Reforms Minster Owen Bonnici following consultation with stakeholders in recent weeks.  

Just last month, Zammit Lewis ruled out making femicide a crime or an aggravating offence to homicide saying that murder, irrespective of gender, already carries the maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

The minister had been responding to a University of Malta and Women's Rights Foundation report that recommended femicide should be made a criminal offence or an aggravating offence of homicide.

Malta’s reform takes a different approach to that put forward in Cyprus last year.  

Last November, Cypriot House President Annita Demetriou presented a proposal to make femicide a distinct criminal offence punished by life imprisonment.

The Cypriot proposal basically changes the description of the offence but does not change the penalties linked to it.

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