A prison warder who posted a comment online saying he hoped refugees were burning inside a refugee shelter has been acquitted of inciting racial hatred because the court’s hands were tied by an outdated law.

In his judgment, Magistrate Aaron Bugeja called upon legislators to expand the law’s definition to encapsulate inciting racial hatred against people overseas.

Vincent Debono was charged with misuse of electronic equipment and with using abusive and insulting language aimed at inciting racial hatred.

The case dates to October 2015, when the prison warder and former policeman posted a comment below an article being shared on Facebook entitled: ‘Third refugee shelter torched in Sweden in six days’. The story reported that a string of suspected arson attacks had hit three facilities intended to house asylum seekers in Sweden.

The accused reacted to the article by posting: “i hope its (sic) burning with them inside”.

Mr Debono's Facebook post.Mr Debono's Facebook post.

The comment was flagged by columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia in her blog. It was subsequently brought to the attention of then-director of prisons Raymond G. Zammit when a person sent him an email, asking if Mr Zammit, the Corradino Correctional Facility or the Minister were ready to tolerate an employee using Facebook to express his approval of Muslims being burnt alive.

The accused was then investigated by the prison authorities as well as by the police.

Mr Debono immediately admitted to the first charge of misuse of electronic equipment, but contested the second charge of inciting racial violence.

Magistrate Bugeja found that the accused’s message was clear, as he expressed the wish that those refugees or asylum seekers who were being hosted by the Swedish facilities which caught fire should be burnt along with the facilities.

“This was clearly an expression aimed at causing damage, dejection, vexation or offence to others. Even worse was the fact that such language had emanated from a prison warder who, during the course of carrying out his duties, would come into direct contact with foreigners,” Magistrate Bugeja noted.

The court held that such comments therefore went beyond the limits of what was enshrined in the right to free expression.

However, Maltese law describes racial hatred as an act which is carried out against a person or a group of people in Malta. The defence argued that since the accused’s comment did not refer to people within Malta’s jurisdiction, then he could not be found guilty of the crime.

In the court’s opinion, the phenomenon of racism was not one which was solely tied to territory but which went beyond Maltese territorial waters.

However, the court was obliged to follow the law. The court could not change the law – it was up to the legislators to do so, Magistrate Bugeja noted.

The court observed that, in light of recent developments abroad as well as an increasingly globalised world and the unprecedented leap in the use of the media, legislators should expand the law – which was set up in 2002 – to incorporate people who are currently not in Malta in cases where the person expressing racial hatred is, at least, located in Malta.

The court found the accused guilty of the first charge, fining him €5,000 and
acquitted him of the second charge.

Lawyers Veronique Dalli and Dean Hili appeared for the accused.

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