Updated 3.50pm

George Degiorgio has been awarded €10,000 in damages after a court found that his right to privacy and family life were breached by an unauthorised phone tap.

Degiorgio, who will face trial for the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, was challenging the validity of phone tapping laws.

A court on Tuesday ruled that the Malta Security Services had breached Degiorgio’s right to privacy, though it also dismissed his claim that his right to a fair hearing had been breached.

It found that police had not obtained a new warrant to tap Degiorgio's phone when a previous one, obtained in relation to other suspected crimes, had expired. 

While urgent cases warranted less red tape, that did not excuse authorities' decision to continue spying on Degiorgio without a warrant, it concluded. 

Judge Toni Abela ordered the state advocate and head of the MSS to pay Degiorgio €10,000 in damages. Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà, who was also targeted by the suit, was cleared as he was deemed by the court to not have a case to answer for. 

Tapping Degiorgio's phone

According to Maltese law, the Malta Security Services is responsible for tapping phones and it can only do so after obtaining a warrant signed by the Prime Minister or Home Affairs Minister.  

Investigators were listening in on Degiorgio’s phone eight months before Caruana Galizia was assassinated, as they suspected him of being involved in other crimes.

The court heard how the police commissioner at the time, Lawrence Cutajar, had passed on the tapping request on February 20, 2017.

That warrant was authorised two days later but later expired and was not renewed. The court was not shown any evidence that police sought a fresh warrant to spy on Degiorgio in relation to the Caruana Galizia case. 

Caruana Galizia was killed in October of that year and Degiorgio was arrested for that crime two months later, in December. 

Inspector Keith Arnaud, who is leading the Caruana Galizia murder investigation, told a court that he had not seen the warrant authorising that initial phone tap and that it was not his job to do so.

Further testimony by key figures, including MSS chief Joseph Bugeja, was heard behind closed doors.

'Non-existent' warrant

The court found that the timing of the initial wiretap meant it was clearly not related to the eventual murder of Caruana Galizia, and expressed consternation at the fact that Degiorgio was being spied on even after it expired. 

"The court cannot understand how that could be done without a warrant as requested by law," it said. Authorities had intercepted Degiorgio's calls in a "most irregular manner" because a warrant was "non-existent," the court said. 

Right to a fair hearing not breached

Details concerning Degiorgio's phone featured prominently in the compilation of evidence against him, with prosecutors testifying that he had asked his partner "buy me wine, my love" shortly after the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia went off, and spoken of having "caught two big fish" that day. 

Prosecutors also said that Degiorgio had contacted an acquaintance to ask him to top up his mobile phone with credit before the SMS that detonated the bomb was sent. 

The criminal court hearing Degiorgio's case has ordered that any reference to phone tapping information be removed from records of Arnaud's testimony, following a successful pre-trial plea to that effect filed by Degiorgio and his brother, who also stands accused of the crime. 

In its ruling on Tuesday, the court said that given that the testimony was no longer part of the evidence in the case, Degiorgio's right to a fair hearing had not been infringed.

Criticism of media reporting

In its judgement, the court was also critical of media reporting concerning the case.  

Contents of the phone taps were reported by both local and foreign media, the court said, saying it was perplexed by the police force's inability to get to the bottom of media leaks. 

“The court cannot understand how such information in the media appears to come from police sources and yet it’s as though nothing has happened," it said. 

Such premature reports could endanger ongoing investigations or negatively impact proceedings in court and anything published by the media could never be wholly retracted, Mr Justice Abela said. 

The court was particularly unimpressed by the inclusion of adjectives and commentary in some news articles concerning the wire taps, which he said were there to "add colour" but also risked impinging on the accused's presumption of innocence. 

Degiorgio was represented by lawyer William Cuschieri. 

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