A man undergoing proceedings for alleged drug trafficking had his rights breached when his case was not decided within a reasonable time, a court ruled on Monday.

Robert Agius was arraigned in May 2012 for alleged involvement in a heroin-trafficking conspiracy, aggravated drug possession, keeping unlicensed firearms and ammunition as well as recidivism.

But the proceedings ground to a stalemate when a crucial witness refused to testify while criminal action in her regard was still pending.

This witness had told the police that Mr Agius was the person upon whose instructions, the drug had been smuggled into Malta. Summoned twice by the prosecution to give evidence in Mr Agius’s case, the woman had refused to comply since proceedings in her regard were still ongoing.

In spite of being authorized to summon the witness a third time in March 2016, the prosecution had registered no progress over one year later, first reporting that the woman’s appeal had been put off sine die and later through repeated no shows by the witness.

When the woman was finally escorted to the witness stand under court order, she once again, for the third time, refused to testify since final judgment in her regard was still pending and her appeal had not yet been re-appointed for hearing.

Mr Agius then filed an application arguing that his right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time had been breached.

Setting out a timeline of events since the accused’s arraignment, the court, presided over by Madam Justice Jacqueline Padovani Grima, observed that 41 hearings down the line, the criminal action against Mr Agius had not yet been concluded.

After bringing forward 20 witnesses within one year from the arraignment, the prosecution had “put forward no evidence for over two years,” the court noted.

In the light of local and European caselaw, the concept of ‘reasonable time’ was left to the court’s discretion, to be decided according to the circumstances of each particular case, based on whether the proceedings “exceeded the term normally acceptable within a democratic society,” the court explained.

In this case, the prosecution’s insistence on summoning the “indispensable” witness who had every right not to testify while her appeal had yet to be heard, was “unacceptable” in view of the lapse of time, namely over six years since Mr Agius’s arraignment.

For this reason, the court declared that the man’s right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time was being breached, thereby ordering the Director of the Criminal Courts to re-appoint the appeal of the witness within one week and urging the Court of Appeal to handle its hearing without delay, whilst Mr Agius’s criminal case resumed before the Magistrates’ Court.

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Rene Darmanin assisted Mr Agius.

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