A money laundering case against two of the men accused of murdering journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is to be decided by a magistrates’ court rather than by a judge.
The decision on who is to hand down punishment in the event of a conviction is at the Attorney General's discretion.
If the case was tried before the Criminal Court, the maximum punishment is 18 years or a fine of €2.5 million or both. When the case is decided by magistrate, the maximum punishment goes down to nine years or a fine of €250,000 or both.
It was taken after the prosecution had declared that it had no further evidence to put forward.
Brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, together with George Degiorgio’s partner Anca Adelina Pop, are pleading not guilty to money-laundering accusations after investigations into the journalist’s assassination two years ago, had led to further criminal action against the brothers.
Although both men claimed to be unemployed, they did not file tax returns and had mostly dormant bank accounts. They nonetheless appeared to lead a lavish lifestyle, owning luxury cars and pleasure boats.
Suspicions surrounding the Degiorgio brothers and Ms Pop had also recently prompted a case study by Council of Europe MoneyVal experts into the Caruana Galizia murder.
In the course of the compilation of evidence, prosecuting Inspector Antonovitch Muscat had told the court that the investigation into the murder had involved scrutiny of the banking transactions and possessions of the suspects.
Moreover, following the arraignment of the Degiorgio brothers and Vincent Muscat, as the alleged perpetrators of the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, the police had received a number of anonymous tip-offs, rousing further suspicion about the Degiorgios’ lifestyle.
Eventually, the two brothers and George Degiorgio’s partner were jointly charged with money-laundering in June 2018.
During a sitting this week, the court, presided over by magistrate Joseph Mifsud, read out the counter-order whereby the Attorney General sent back the records of the inquiry to the Magistrates’ Court for the case to be decided before that court.
What does the decision mean?
The Criminal Code grants the Attorney General this power in cases where he is of the opinion that the offence can be tried by the Magistrates’ Court “on account of the absence of circumstances constituting an offence within the jurisdiction of the Criminal Court”, namely under a bill of indictment.
Malta's anti-money laundering laws provide for a maximum jail term of 18 years and fine of up to €2.5 million if a crime is tried before the Criminal court. When the case is decided by magistrate, the maximum punishment goes down to nine years or a fine of €250,000 or both.
Meanwhile, George Degiorgio’s partner had been granted bail in July 2018. The Degiorgio brothers had been granted bail in these proceedings by the Magistrates’ Court in October 2018, but that grant was revoked a week later by the Criminal Court, presided over by Madam Justice Edwina Grima, following an appeal by the Attorney General.
However, in April 2019, a fresh application for bail in the money-laundering proceedings was upheld by the Criminal Court, presided over by Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti, who observed that all the prosecution witnesses had already testified.
In his decree, Mr Justice Grixti had stated that the Attorney General’s preoccupation as to the untrustworthiness of the accused needed to be supported by a degree of evidence, even to a minimum degree.
Lawyer William Cuschieri is counsel to the Degiorgios.
Lawyer David Gatt is counsel to Ms Pop.