The Constitutional Court has declared that the continued pre-trial detention of Alfred and George Degiorgio is in the public interest just as it is for the authorities to ensure that justice is meted out within a reasonable time.
Court proceedings of such a scale and gravity as those of the two brothers currently awaiting trial as alleged hitmen in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia four years ago, further emphasize the need for government to beef up resources at the law courts, the court said.
Moreover, such cases cast a spotlight on outdated legal procedures which contribute to unnecessary delays in the administration of justice.
“There must be no more dragging of feet by the legislator, and radical amendments should be introduced,” said the court.
The observations were made in a judgment delivered upon an appeal filed by the Degiorgios following a decision by the First Hall, Civil Court in March which had declared that their fundamental rights were not breached when they were repeatedly denied bail.
Eight applications for bail turned down
Since their arraignment in December 2017, two months after the Bidnija car bomb explosion that killed the journalist, the alleged hitmen unsuccessfully filed eight applications for bail.
After analyzing the relative bail decrees within the “wider picture” presented by this case, the first court had concluded that denial of bail was justified and that the Degiorgios had suffered no breach of their rights to freedom, fair trial and protection against discrimination.
When the case proceeded to appeal stage before the Constitutional Court, the Degiorgios argued that the reasons given for denying them bail were “general and abstract” and that none of the legal grounds for continued detention had been proven.
There seemed to be a “quasi-automatic prolongation of detention” that breached their fundamental rights, the appellants argued.
However the court, presided over by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti together with justices Giannino Caruana Demajo and Anthony Ellul, observed that although four years were a considerable” time, "the circumstances of the case and particularly the reference by the Criminal Court to the “criminal web” (‘xibka ta’ kriminalita’) linked to the murder, justified the Degiorgios’ continued detention.
In the public interest for investigations to continue - court
It was in the public interest for investigations into this macabre murder to continue uninterrupted so as to determine whether there were other persons who should be charged with crimes linked to the journalist’s assassination.
The Caruana Galizia murder sent shockwaves throughout the country and beyond, striking deep at the freedom of expression of journalists who have the right to investigate, ask questions and report.
Their work lies at the heart of any democracy, the court observed.
“Caruana Galizia was an investigative journalist who wrote about cases concerning alleged corruption involving persons occupying government roles or those close to government,” said the court.
Not only did the Criminal Court make reference to a “criminal web,” but the Degiorgios also implicated a minister and a third party in the murder and other criminal cases in their request for a presidential pardon.
“These allegations are of great concern and obviously need to be investigated,” said the Court.
It was also in the public interest for pending criminal proceedings to be given priority and to continue uninterrupted so that justice is delivered without delay, bearing in mind the voluminous evidence and lengthy list of pre-trial pleas.
As for the issue of electronic tagging referred to by the Degiorgios as a possible measure to balance out the risks perceived in the granting of bail, the court declared that at this stage the issue was “irrelevant” since the appellants did not satisfy bail conditions.
The greatest fear appeared to be that of tampering with the ongoing investigations irrespective of whether they were electronically tagged or not.
The Degiorgios also claimed inequality of arms given that only the AG had a right to appeal a bail decree delivered by the Magistrates’ Courts.
But the court pointed out that there was nothing stopping the accused from filing an unlimited number of requests before the Criminal Court whenever the records of the case were referred back to the AG’s Office.
In fact, it was the Criminal Court which had granted them bail in separate money laundering proceedings in April 2019 after their original request had been rejected by the Magistrate presiding over that case.
In light of such considerations the Court turned down the appeal and confirmed the judgment of the first court.
State Advocate Christopher Soler and lawyer Maurizio Cordina represented the State.
Lawyer William Cuschieri assisted the appellants.