Chief Justice Noel Arrigo and Judge Patrick Vella are being investigated by police over claims that they accepted thousands of liri in return for reducing a convicted man's prison sentence on appeal by four years, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami said yesterday.

Making the announcement at a news conference at the Auberge Castille yesterday evening, Dr Fenech Adami said the case was related to the appeal on July 5 of Mario Camilleri, whose sentence was reduced from 16 to 12 years.

Camilleri was originally sentenced to 16 years imprisonment and fined Lm25,000 for regularly trafficking cocaine and possessing a firearm.

The appeal was heard by Chief Justice Arrigo, Mr Justice Joseph Filletti and Mr Justice Vella. Mr Justice Filletti is not implicated in the case, Dr Fenech Adami said.

Dr Fenech Adami said that days before the appeal, the police were made aware of contacts between people representing the accused and Chief Justice Arrigo and Mr Justice Vella.

The prime minister said the two judges were asked to reduce the jail term by four years in return for thousands of liri. However, he did not say how much money was involved.

Dr Fenech Adami said the police continued to investigate the case and discovered that money had been relayed to the two judges.

The questioning of witnesses started after Mr Justice Vella returned from abroad on July 27.

Police Commissioner John Rizzo, who is investigating the case, questioned the two judges separately yesterday.

Dr Fenech Adami said he felt the case was so important that it merited an official reaction.

"From the government's side, I will promise you that the case will keep being investigated and that any necessary legal steps will be taken."

Earlier in the day, Dr Fenech Adami met President Guido de Marco and opposition leader Alfred Sant over the case.

He said Dr Sant also agreed that the case was one of national importance and that it should not be dealt with in a partisan matter.

An emergency cabinet meeting was also held in connection with the matter.

Dr Fenech Adami appealed to the public to wait for the results of the investigation before reaching any conclusions. However, he also urged the public to realise that the country's institutions and laws applied to everybody.

Dr Fenech Adami said the judges had not yet offered their resignation. "The country's laws have to be abided by. Judges can only be removed following certain procedures," he said.

He said the judges were being investigated only in connection with the Camilleri case.

Legal sources said that according to Section 97 of the Constitution, should the case be deemed as one of "proved misbehaviour", it would be referred to the Commission for the Administration of Justice, and afterwards to parliament for impeachment. A two-thirds majority is required for the judges to be removed from their post.

Chief Justice Arrigo, 52, was sworn in as chief justice last January 17, following the retirement of Dr Joseph Said Pullicino.

A lecturer at the university since 1976, Chief Justice Arrigo had also served as president of the Chamber of Advocates, and chairman of the Malta branch of the Institute of Directors.

Mr Justice Vella, 57, was appointed judge in February 1998, after serving as magistrate for 12 years.

He became a lawyer in 1967, and obtained a magister juris in European Law in 1996.

Mr Justice Vella and Chief Justice Arrigo could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Police sources said the police collected Mr Justice Vella from his home yesterday at 9 a.m.

The last case of impeachment involved Judge Anton Depasquale last September, after he had stayed away from court for seven years as he contested the validity of a law setting up the Commission for the Administration of Justice. He viewed the law as being a threat to the independence of the judiciary.

However, he remained in office since the impeachment motion did not receive the necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority.

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