Updated 5.05pm

Brussels has lifted former European commissioner John Dalli’s immunity from prosecution, with a case against him finally set to begin a decade after he was first implicated in a major bribery scandal. 

The controversial former health commissioner has so far avoided being charged in court over his role in an alleged €60 million bribe to influence European Union tobacco legislation dating back to 2012.

The former Nationalist minister’s case is now set to continue on December 21 when the prosecution is expected to finally file charges against him. Dalli later said that the hearing has been postponed (see below). 

In the latest of a series of hiccups and speed bumps in the case, prosecutors hit the brakes on long-awaited court action for fear that Dalli may enjoy EU-wide immunity from prosecution.

EU officials are granted immunity to protect them from vexatious charges as a result of actions carried out in their official capacity.

A spokesperson for the Commission has now told Times of Malta that after a lengthy process, Brussels has decided to lift Dalli’s immunity.

“The Commission can confirm that, on request of the Attorney General of Malta, the Commission has waived the immunity of former commissioner John Dalli,” the spokesperson said.

She added that Brussels’ decision did not mean the commission was expressing itself on whether Dalli ought to face charges.

'Matter within remit of national courts'

“This matter falls within the remit of the competent national courts. The presumption of innocence applies,” she said.

Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà re-activated an investigation into Dalli following his appointment last year, with charges originally set to be issued in September.

However, prosecutors put in an eleventh-hour request for the September case to be postponed, with another request for a delay made last month over a legal wrangle about whether Dalli’s European Union immunity can torpedo the planned charges.

Dalli had stepped down as EU health commissioner in October 2012, following an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office into alleged attempts by his former aide Silvio Zammit to solicit the €60 million bribe.

The bribe was allegedly to help overturn an EU-wide ban on snus, a form of smokeless tobacco. 

Zammit was charged with the bribery attempt in December 2012.

Then police commissioner John Rizzo had also planned to charge Dalli, who stayed away from Malta following Zammit’s prosecution.

Dalli returned to Malta in April 2013, one month after the Labour Party shot to power. 

Rizzo’s replacement, Peter Paul Zammit, then declared there was no case for Dalli to answer to. Then prime minister Joseph Muscat immediately reached out to Dalli and then appointed him as his consultant on health.

Dalli had been appointed to the European Commission in 2009, in what was widely seen as a move by then prime minister Lawrence Gonzi to kick his political rival upstairs. 

Dalli, who had spent several stints in cabinet and overhauled Malta’s taxation system, has long faced accusations of corruption. He resigned as minister for foreign affairs in 2004 over claims he was awarding contracts to a travel agency owned by his daughters. 

He unsuccessfully ran for leadership of the Nationalist Party in 2004 before being appointed foreign minister. 

Muscat had defended Dalli’s appointment as health consultant even after further details began to emerge about three suspicious trips the former European Union commissioner took to the Bahamas in the run-up to his resignation from his post in Brussels. 

Dalli: I want legal process to continue 

In a statement sent to Times of Malta following publication, Dalli said that he had never sought to be shielded by immunity or presented any objections to it being waived.

"Through my lawyers I insisted that I wanted the legal process to continue unperturbed," he said. 

Dalli forwarded his statement to the President of Malta, archbishop, MPs, EU Commissioners and other top EU officials. 

Accusing Times of Malta journalists of being "media mercenaries", Dalli claimed that then-inspector Angelo Gafà had been keen to arraign him in 2012 after reaching a deal with OLAF boss Giovanni Kessler. Gafà is now the police commissioner. 

He also said the December 21 hearing had been postponed at the prosecution's request, "because they will be on holiday." 

Correction December 13: A previous version misstated the sequence of events concerning Dalli's 2013 return to Malta.

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