The third inquiry into Nicholas Azzopardi’s 2008 death has again failed to unearth any evidence of wrongdoing. Ariadne Massa gained access to the magistrate’s report.
Nicholas Azzopardi’s death immediately courted controversy when on his deathbed he claimed police beat him and threw him off a bastion wall while in custody facing allegations he abused his seven-year-old daughter.
Two investigations found no wrongdoing by the police, but when one of the witnesses – PS Adrian Lia, who was escorting Mr Azzopardi just before the incident – was this year charged with stealing some €30,000 from police headquarters, his credibility was undermined.
The spectre of doubt reared its head further when earlier this year Mr Azzopardi’s relatives told police they were willing to testify about claims of an intimate relationship between his wife Claudette and the disgraced ex-police officer.
This led the Police Commissioner to request the Attorney General to reopen the 2008 magisterial inquiry last March to eliminate any “shadow of doubt”.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi went a step further and earlier this month offered an amnesty to anyone who was aware of any abuse that may have taken place. To date, nobody has come forward.
In the meantime, Magistrate Anthony Vella concluded his second inquiry on September 18 and established he would not diverge from the conclusions of his 2008 investigation: that Mr Azzopardi was never assaulted by police and that the wounds he sustained were compatible with a fall from height, not the result of any blows.
After an official request was made, The Sunday Times was granted permission to go through Magistrate Vella’s procés-verbal, CCTV footage, medical and forensic reports.
The Office of the Prime Minister said a copy of the report of Magistrate Vella’s latest inquiry has been handed over to the family’s lawyer.
Testimony of Nicholas Azzopardi’s brother, Reno
One of the people interviewed was Mr Azzopardi’s brother, Reno, who testified that “everybody knew” Ms Azzopardi and PS Lia were having an affair; that “there are those who witnessed what happened and those who know the facts”.
Reno Azzopardi said he had heard “rumours” from people who lived close by that his brother’s wife was two-timing him with PS Lia.
However, when the magistrate asked if he had a list of witnesses who could testify, Reno Azzopardi said he did not have one.
He added that he wanted to protect these people in the absence of a Whistleblower Act.
The magistrate asked: “Or do you have [a list] and cannot reveal it? If you don’t have it, it’s OK...”
Reno Azzopardi replied: “I can’t reveal who this person is... I don’t know exactly who this person is; I heard from somebody else, but there is more than one source...”
He further said these witnesses – who claimed they were present while his 38-year-old brother was being questioned – heard PS Lia telling his brother that the police were going to take away his daughter for what he allegedly did to her.
Reno Azzopardi was informed that a confrontation then followed when PS Lia taunted Nicholas Azzopardi that he had previously had a relationship with his wife and then assaulted him.
These claims contrast sharply with what Nicholas Azzopardi had told Magistrate Vella from his hospital bed.
He claimed to have been beaten in the lock-up by two policemen wearing the uniform’s dark blue pullover. However, the two policemen – PS Lia and PC Ruben Zammit – escorting the victim before he fell three storeys into the yard of Lorenzo Manchè girl’s school were in plain clothes.
Magistrate Vella further pointed out that Nicholas Azzopardi had “never once mentioned” he had been assaulted following an altercation with PS Lia over his wife.
Not only that, but Reno Azzopardi himself admitted that his brother had never confided this information before he died and he only learnt these ‘facts’ when PS Lia was sacked.
The magistrate concluded: “It is therefore highly improbable that these words [of PS Lia] were ever uttered to Nicholas Azzopardi.”
When contacted, Reno Azzopardi said the family had appointed a team of professionals and lawyers to dig deeper into his brother’s death and they were under strict instructions not to speak.
What would give the family closure?
“For us, the case will never be closed. Nothing can ever replace what we lost.
“All we’re trying to do is ensure Nicholas is not statistically listed as one of the 12 others who fell from the same place.
“This is not about compensation... You just get a feeling things are not really as they should be... We just want good to come out of this.”
Nicholas Azzopardi had threatened to jump
In a bid to get to the bottom of these fresh claims, Magistrate Vella interviewed Nicholas Azzopardi’s wife, Claudette, who denied knowing PS Lia “from Adam” or that she had had an affair with him.
She reiterated that before the incident their marriage was on the rocks and both she and her husband were filing police reports against each other.
The police had instructed her to take their daughter to the government support agency Appoġġ because the girl’s behaviour had raised alarm bells. The magistrate also re-examined the voluminous file by social workers who investigated the allegations of sexual abuse that led to Nicholas Azzopardi’s arrest.
She also testified that she suspected her husband realised the girl had confided in her because he urged her to reconcile or otherwise he would go and jump.
However, she had not taken this threat seriously.
Ms Azzopardi said she had never mentioned this detail before because in the previous inquiry she had not been linked with PS Lia.
PS Lia too denied ever having met Ms Azzopardi or knowing her husband before he was arrested.
Magistrate Vella’s conclusions
Magistrate Vella concluded that on April 9, 2008, Nicholas Azzopardi emerged from the police depot accompanied by PS Lia and PC Zammit to have his fingerprints taken.
Seeing the office closed, Nicholas Azzopardi, who had been under arrest for about 28 hours, was accompanied towards the back of the building.
PS Lia momentarily left Nicholas Azzopardi and PC Zammit alone and on his superiors’ instructions went to the waiting room and informed Ms Azzopardi to go up to Insp. Graziella Muscat’s office.
The magistrate said it was evident that Nicholas Azzopardi was alone with PC Zammit.
CCTV footage (see timesofmalta.com) clearly shows Nicholas Azzopardi walking freely – he is not handcuffed – and does not appear to be injured or in pain.
At one point he is also seen peering over the four-foot wall. A car is seen approaching. It parks and another police officer emerges from the car and enters the depot.
The magistrate said PS Lia then returned to join the two. Just a few seconds pass before the incident happened, though it was not caught on camera.
Magistrate Vella concluded it was physically impossible for Nicholas Azzopardi to be assaulted.
“Adrian Lia had no opportunity to confront Nicholas Azzopardi as alleged, less so have the time to assault him, deal considerable blows that knock him out, then haul him over the wall and throw him over.
“There is no witness of this as Nicholas Azzopardi was alone, accompanied only by PC Zammit.”
• While Nicholas Azzopardi was in custody he spent 44% of his time at Mater Dei Hospital; 22% giving his statement; 12% at the lock-up; 11% with the vice squad; and 3% during the search at his Fgura residence, among others.
• In his report, forensic expert Mario Scerri said: “I confirm that the evidence at no point shows that Nicholas Azzopardi sustained any injuries before the fall that were suspicious or compatible with a beating.”
• The autopsy concluded that Nicholas Azzopardi had died as a result of pulmonary embolism.