Darren Debono it-Topo chose not to answer questions when testifying on Wednesday about a failed HSBC Bank hold-up, repeatedly citing his right to silence.
Debono was given a reduced 10-year prison sentence for his role in the 2010 crime, with prosecutors agreeing to drop an attempted homicide charge he faced in exchange for evidence against his co-accused, Vince Muscat il-Kohhu.
But while Debono has agreed to testify against il-Kohhu, he has refused to provide any evidence against any other third parties involved in the botched heist, saying he does not want to place his family in danger.
A court had jailed him for six months in February 2022 for failing to cooperate with prosecutors, though that sentence was halved on appeal over a technicality.
The jail term did not lead to a change of heart, however.
On Wednesday, Debono was summoned as a witness in the case against Muscat, who faces multiple charges related to the HSBC heist attempt, including attempted murder of police officers, attempted theft and holding officers against their will.
But before starting his testimony, Debono declared that since last time criminal action was taken against him for choosing to testify the way he did (not naming third parties), this time he was "opting for silence."
And that is exactly how it panned out.
“I choose silence,” he said in response to everything asked of him, including questions asking him to confirm that he had received a plea deal for his role in the crime.
Prosecutors rattled off a series of questions about the failed heist and its immediate aftermath asking the witness who else was involved in the crime, who had provided them with weapons and vehicles, who procured number plates, who spread oil on streets leading to the bank and who fired shots.
They also asked Debono who had masterminded the crime, how much money they targeted and how they had obtained access cards allowing them into the bank.
Debono stonewalled when asked each question, repeating that he was invoking his right to silence.
Suddenly, the inspector changed tack and asked the witness who he was afraid of.
“What if I name Alfred and George Degiorgio? Or Fabio Psaila?,” the inspector asked.
Debono did not respond.
Debono was summoned after the court had spent two hours hearing evidence from a police superintendent and legal arguments from Muscat's lawyers behind closed doors.
His lawyer Edward Gatt told the court that the situation had remained unchanged for months.
“We’re in a legal alley that cannot be resolved,” Gatt argued, noting that his client had been given a prison sentence for his refusal to testify against third parties.
“Today we’re in the same situation. Nothing has changed. And since the court may order criminal action against him, he is opting not to testify,” Gatt added.
Magistrate Monica Vella said prosecutors could ask whatever questions they wished and Debono could answer as he deemed fit.
The defence waived its right to cross-examine Debono, saying that his testimony was “manifestly inadmissible” in proceedings against Muscat.
“It lacks all useful probatory value and if allowed to be produced in evidence, the sole purpose of such testimony would be to cause prejudice to the accused,” argued lawyer Roberto Montalto.
Before Debono testified, the magistrate asked prosecutors whether they intended to take criminal action against the witness. Inspector Joseph Mercieca said there were no such plans “with respect to this case”, clarifying that he was referring to the failed 2010 HSBC hold-up.
Magistrate Vella ordered the records to be sent back to the Criminal Court which had ordered the testimony to be heard before Muscat faces trial. Debono was whisked away under tight security, soon to be followed by Muscat equally under close security.
During Wednesday’s session, Muscat’s lawyers also presented a copy of the constitutional case they recently filed, challenging the decision given by Madam Justice Edwina Grima and the selection of the judge to preside over his trial.
Muscat’s legal team argued that Debono’s testimony should be suspended pending the outcome of that case, but that submission was turned down by the court.
The case continues.
Attorney general lawyer Anthony Vella prosecuted, together with Superintendent Fabian Fleri and Inspector Joseph Mercieca. Lawyers Franco Debono and Roberto Montalto were defence counsel. Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo assisted Debono.
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