On the eve of a trial by jury on the June 2010 unsuccessful armed raid on HSBC Bank Malta’s cash depot in Qormi, one of the two co-accused unexpectedly entered a guilty plea after securing a deal with the prosecution.
Darren Debono, It-Topo, was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison and fined €18,000 after pledging to testify against his co-accused, Vincent Muscat, Il-Koħħu. In return, Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg agreed that, in his regard, the charge of attempted homicide would be changed to attempting to cause grievous bodily harm to public officers, the policemen who risked their lives to disrupt the robbers’ nefarious plans.
The disturbing allegations made in connection with the botched heist, the players involved in those allegations – who include Minister Carmelo Abela, called in for questioning about the raid last year – as well as former minister Chris Cardona, and the demotivating effect the result of the plea bargain is likely to have on police officers are just a few reasons why the deal is of clear public interest.
The onus of putting the record straight and convincing the suspicious public that no improper dealings was involved falls squarely on the attorney general. Buttigieg should waste no more time in coming forward with a credible explanation for the sake of her own reputation and that of her office.
In the case of a nolle prosequi – a decision not to proceed against a suspect notwithstanding a magistrate finding enough evidence – the attorney general is obliged, by law, to give an explanation to the president of Malta. In this case, one count in the bill of indictment was dropped.
As it appears that the law does not provide for such ‘half-baked’ measures, it becomes even more imperative that the attorney general say exactly how the deal will benefit justice. One can safely assume that both the justice minister and the police commissioner know the reason behind such a controversial decision. But neither of them feels duty-bound to put society’s mind at rest that it was nothing but the truth that motivated it.
Nobody is telling the government to interfere in what the attorney general decides. But a clear explanation could go a long way towards showing there was no such interference.
As for the police commissioner, both the society he has sworn to serve and protect and his officers, whose well-being he is responsible for, expect him to declare whether he had been consulted before the decision was made. He must realise the deal greatly demotivates officers who constantly put their lives on the line, even going beyond their call of duty.
The timing and the manner in which the deal with Debono is being handled seems to indicate there is more than meets the eye. Otherwise, there would have been no valid reason for shrouding the whole deal in secrecy.
Is it a case of avoiding certain embarrassing statements or allegations being made just months from a general election? The same could be said for another case: the police commissioner reneging on a commitment to produce in court evidence extracted from a mobile phone belonging to Keith Schembri, former chief of staff at the Office of the Prime Minister.
Or is it, perhaps, a move to use Debono, who had been given a general interdiction after being found guilty of perjury, to punch holes in Muscat’s credibility, thus weakening what he said, or could still say, about serious crime, including Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder?
A clear explanation by the attorney general could allay any fears of this being another rotten deal.