The accelerated promotion of four Armed Forces of Malta officers soon after the 2013 general election was “outright illegal”, having been ordered directly by the home affairs minister at the time and carried out behind the back of the AFM commander, the ombudsman has found.

Brigadier Martin Xuereb, who was commander at the time, only learned about the promotions from a notice in The Malta Government Gazette. Manuel Mallia was the home affairs minister who ordered them.

The ombudsman concluded that the process was irregular, illegal, improper and discriminatory. It was the result of a “tailor-made process to achieve a pre-ordained result”.

He also said that the “injustice and maladministration” he had found “ill-behoves the army and the country”.

He was ruling on a complaint filed by four lieutenant colonels, Karl Sammut, Albert Brincat, Ian Ruggier and Mario Borg, who have since left the AFM.

They had complained that they were skipped for promotion to colonel, that the promotions were given to others who were behind them on the scale and, worse still, they were awarded without a proper selection process.

One of the four officers who benefited from the accelerated promotion was the present commander, Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi, who eventually replaced Xuereb.

The other three were Pierre Vassallo, Mark Said and Mark Mallia, who were all promoted to the rank of colonel just two weeks after being promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The process was irregular, illegal, improper and discriminatory. It was the result of a tailor-made process to achieve a pre-ordained result.

Curmi, who until September 2013 was a major, sprinted to the pinnacle of the AFM on the back of four promotions in four months, becoming commander in December 2013. Mallia was made deputy commander on the same day.

The ombudsman concluded his report in June last year, recommending that each of the four complainants be given €15,000 in moral damages for having been disregarded for the AFM promotions they were due.

However, the government ignored its conclusions and recommendations, forcing the ombudsman to notify parliament about it last October.

So far, the government has taken no action on the report, which has now been leaked to Times of Malta.

The investigation had started under the previous ombudsman, former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino, who was at first not allowed to initiate his probe because he was refused the documentation he required. The minister insisted he did not have jurisdiction to investigate AFM complaints.

Said Pullicino filed a court case against Manuel Mallia and permanent secretary Kevin Mahoney. The court eventually ruled in favour of the ombudsman, confirmed in 2016 by the Court of Appeal which threw out Manuel Mallia’s appeal.

When the probe was taken over by ombudsman Anthony Mifsud, he heard the former commander explain that he had not made recommendations for promotion in 2013 although he had been directed by the permanent secretary to “start thinking about promotions” soon after the general election. 

“The promoted officers were promoted on the instructions of the minister,” the ombudsman said in his report, adding that this course of action had been met with no opposition. The permanent secretary had obeyed his minister’s orders “unconditionally”.

The ombudsman found that the “selection process was conducted in a manner not contemplated by the law itself” and that “it is not the minister who is the arbiter of the law when that law does not accord him any discretion” to hand out promotions.

He concluded that the process “was tainted with undue external influence that seriously prejudiced the essential requisites of transparency and observance of the rules of due process required to dispel any perception of improper discrimination. Worse, it was outright illegal”.

He added: “The minister did not bother to observe the niceties of a selection process but jumped ahead to the promotion of the favoured few. The complainants suffered a gross injustice.

“They suffered from improper and unjust discrimination.”

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