A court has ordered the arrest and immediate investigation of a star prosecution witness in the 2010 HSBC heist case.
Darren Debono, known as It-Topo, was meant to give evidence in the case against fellow co-accused Vince Muscat.
His testimony was meant to be given in exchange for a 10-year plea deal reached with the Attorney General earlier this year.
Upon finally taking to the witness stand after weeks of legal wrangling about the admissibility of his evidence, Debono flatly refused to name any accomplices in the heist apart from Muscat.
"Please your honour, I won’t name them. I don’t want to put my son’s life in danger," the witness pleaded.
Magistrate Monica Vella ordered Debono's immediate arrest and investigation, as the witness refused to cooperate.
As it happened:
3.17pm Debono's testimony is over before it even begins.
The magistrate orders his immediate arrest and investigation.
It-Topo was meant to be the prosecution's star witness.
The court demands that her order for an immediate investigation is to be communicated to the police commissioner.
It's a stunning end to today's sitting.
3.13pm The magistrate has had enough.
Debono continues to refuse to name the other accomplices.
She declares him a reluctant witness and orders his immediate arrest.
The magistrate also orders police to charge him within 48 hours over his failure to cooperate.
Such proceedings should be handled with urgency, the magistrate continues.
Vella throws Debono one last lifeline: "Do you reconsider your position?"
"I cannot," Debono replies.
Who were your accomplices?
3.10pm Teasing details about the heist out of the witness is proving difficult.
Debono explains he was waiting outside in a van while the audacious daylight heist took place.
He recalls how he drove off when police turned up outside HSBC's Qormi headquarters.
"We drove off and I called one of the accomplices inside to alert them about the police presence. We went around the block. Then I heard shots."
"As we arrived back opposite the bank, I fired shots in the air. The police opened fire. I was hit in the face. Vince [Koħħu] was inside with the others.
He refuses to name who the two other accomplices who accompanied Vince Muscat inside the bank.
"Please your honour, I won’t name them. I don’t want to put my son’s life in danger."
3.07pm The court runs Debono through the consequences of him not telling the truth on the witness stand.
These include a fine or even separate charges.
"It’s not that I do not want to say the truth, I just don’t want to name third parties who are not here," It-Topo insists.
Magistrate Vella holds firm: "It’s normal to mention persons who are not here."
Doors wide open
3.05pm The magistrate shoots down a prosecution suggestion for Debono to testify behind closed doors.
"Nothing is behind closed doors!" the magistrate says firmly.
Defence lawyer Roberto Montalto jumps in, stating the witness is clearly intent on being evasive.
I’ve warned him that he cannot be selective in what he says", magistrate Vella replies.
The threat is real
3pm The witness looks to be on thin ice.
"I’ve been in this for 12 years and I don’t want to place my family in danger for mistakes I did in the past," Debono pleads with the court.
Magistrate Vella is having none of it.
She warns that steps will be taken against him for perjury if he doesn’t tell the truth.
"I won’t risk the life of my wife and children. The threat is real to my family," Debono fires back.
'I will not mention third parties'
2.55pm We are back inside the court hall.
Magistrate Vella warns it-Topo that he is here to testify in full.
But he insists: "I will give my testimony against the accused, but I won’t mention third parties".
His continued interruption of the court is getting on the magistrate's nerves.
"If you keep interrupting I’m going to fine you for contempt," she warns the prosecution witness.
2.47pm Debono's opening caveat stuns the court.
The defence remarks: “then we may stop here!”
But before anyone else can say anything, the magistrate orders everyone out. Only the accused and lawyers to remain.
It-Topo moves out too under tight security. But the debate continues inside.
Raised voices can be heard coming from inside the court.
'I have a family. I'm not looking for trouble'
2.44pm Here we go!
Debono is (finally) escorted to the witness stand.
Prosecuting inspector Joseph Mercieca fires off the first question.
But before that, Debono says that he’s here to testify against Muscat and he will not mention any third party.
“I have a family. I don’t want trouble.”
Vella sticks to her guns
2.37pm As the defence lawyers stick to their arguments, the AG lawyer points out that there is no right of appeal against today’s decision allowing for It-Topo's testimony to be given.
Magistrate Vella says that she has heard enough. She sticks to her previous position and orders Darren Debono to take the stand.
A bit of history...
2.31pm So, how did we get here?
In January, It-Topo was sentenced to 10 years and six months in jail for his role in the dramatic 2010 HSBC heist.
In a sensational twist, It-Topo , one of the accused, reached a plea bargain in exchange for evidence against his co-accused, Vince Muscat.
Ever since then, Muscat's lawyers have been trying to delay or outright block It-Topo's evidence.
Court pushes back
2.23pm Magistrate Monica Vella appears to be having none of it.
She says her decree paving the way for It-Topo to testify is in line with jurisprudence.
However, both Debono and Montalto continue to try buy more time.
If It-Topo does testify, they insist that he should do so without interruption.
Grab yourselves some coffee. We could be in for a long one if the prosecution witness takes to the stand today.
2.16pm Debono insists that if the court is intent on going ahead with Debono's testimony, evidence should at least start being heard in the morning.
"We need time to analyse the decree that was delivered just a while ago," Debono repeats.
There’s nothing dictating that the witness must definitely testify today, the lawyer says.
Time is ticking
2.06pm Defence lawyer Franco Debono now switches gears.
He cries foul, saying the defence has not even been given time to analyse the consequences of the court's decision today allowing Debono's testimony to go ahead.
Criminal proceedings have been going on for 11 years and now suddenly all this rush, Debono says, pointing out further that it is already 2pm.
2.02pm There seems to be no end in sight to the legal wrangling.
Koħħu's lawyers are holding steadfast, insisting the court must reverse its decision and grant them a constitutional reference.
The defence appear to be doing everything possible to delay Debono's testimony.
"This case must go ahead and this court must hear Darren Debono today, in line with the order given by the criminal court," AG lawyer Giannella Busuttil counters.
Star witness awaits
1.53pm As the legal back-and-forth continues, the prosecution's star witness Darren Debono continues to wait outside the court hall.
Will today finally see him take to the witness stand?
Doubts have been raised in the past about the reliability of any evidence he may give, not least due to his previous conviction for falsifying evidence in an attempted murder case.
In a minute
1.45pm The defence lawyers are arguing with the court that their request for a constitutional reference, which would have paused proceedings, should have been agreed to.
They want their objection to be minuted.
A bit of background
1.38pm Debono and Montalto started representing Koħħu after his previous lawyer Marc Sant resigned.
Sant had long complained about police “inaction” over information his former client offered to give on an array of violent crimes carried out by a criminal gang between 2010 and 2017.
Koħħu had a request for a blanket pardon in exchange for information about these crimes, including the HSBC heist, turned down last year.
Awaiting decree copy
1.30pm Koħħu's lawyers Franco Debono and Roberto Montalto are insisting on a copy of today's degree greenlighting Topo's testimony, before proceedings get under way.
They say they wish to have it in hand prior to the witness taking the stand.
Help from above?
1.23pm The heist was thrust back into the limelight last year over allegations that former Economy Minister Chris Cardona and OPM minister Carmelo Abela helped facilitated the robbery. Both men deny the claims.
1.16pm Koħħu is seated on the front bench in the dock.
He is dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, sunglasses and mask.
Accompanying him are the usual armed guards keeping watch right behind him. There are other armed guards outside the hall escorting Debono.
1.12pm Just minutes ago, magistrate Monica Vella delivered a decree.
She said that the defence’s request is not frivolous or vexatious, but nonetheless denied the attempt to block Debono's testimony by agreeing to the constitutional reference, which would further delay matters.
1.09pm Debono's testimony will finally be heard after weeks of legal wrangling about the admissibility of his evidence.
Just this morning, Vince Muscat's lawyers filed a constitutional reference arguing against the admissibility of Debono's evidence.
Muscat, better known as Il-Kohhu, is accused of complicity in the heist.
It was an animated hearing this morning with lengthy arguments by defence lawyers Franco Debono and Roberto Montalto, at times engaging in heated ping pong with AG lawyer Giannella Busuttil
1.01pm Good afternoon. Darren Debono, known as It-Topo, is finally set to testify about the 2010 HSBC heist.
The heist ended in a violent shootout with police.
Debono was given a plea bargain that will see him serve a 10-year sentence in exchange for his testimony.
The controversial plea deal led one police union to sarcastically invite Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg to the next gunfight.