The plea-bargaining deal that prosecutors struck with Darren Debono, It-Topo, about his involvement in a botched heist at HSBC Bank Malta cash depot 12 years ago, has provoked a street protest and calls for the resignation of the Attorney General.
The AG, Victoria Buttigieg, had agreed to drop an attempted murder charge against Debono over the failed robbery, in which there was a shoot-out with the police. Instead, he admitted to complicity and was imprisoned for 10 years.
In an editorial in mid-January, Times of Malta had called on the AG to provide a clear explanation of what lay behind the arrangement to allay any fears that this was not another “rotten deal”. This was in the light of the allegations that a sitting minister, Carmelo Abela, and a former minister, Chris Cardona, both had some involvement in the attempted robbery. Both deny the claims.
Our appeal for a public explanation has now become all the more justified. Faced with questions in court about his accomplices, Debono last week refused to provide any information except about the role of his former co-accused – Vincent Muscat, Il-Koħħu – saying he feared for the safety of his family.
The presiding magistrate ordered Debono’s immediate arrest – even if he is already serving time – and he is now being prosecuted for being a reluctant witness. Debono’s recalcitrance also prompted the PN to describe the government as a “tool for criminals” and a “threat to people’s safety”, while protest organisers Repubblika accused AG Buttigieg of sparing Debono 20 years in jail “so he could remain silent”.
The law-abiding citizen finds it difficult to comprehend how the AG and/or the police have produced a witness for the prosecution who is now reserving his right to pick and choose what questions to answer or remain silent about. If a witness fears he may incriminate himself with any particular reply, he has the right to ask the court to allow him to remain silent. In this case, Debono has already been convicted.
He insists it is not about him being unwilling to tell the truth but that he does not want to name third parties “who are not here”.
The presiding magistrate was quick to point out that it is normal in court to mention absent individuals.
Unlike a pardon, a plea deal comes with no terms and conditions. But again, the ordinary citizen, such as the protesters who went down to Valletta on Friday, would be forgiven for expecting that behind such a deal would lie the objective of getting justice to prevail. It is in the interest of justice that the other would-be robbers are named and not protected by witnesses.
Otherwise, both the AG and the police have come away with a very raw deal indeed. This is why we are again demanding an explanation from the Attorney General. What was the legal reasoning behind the deal?
There can be little doubt that the government is privy to the details of this sordid story
Given the huge political implications involved, the public has a right to know. Silence will only foment suspicions that the AG and police are playing a political game and not a purely legal one.
There can be little doubt that the government is privy to the details of this sordid story. Yet, both the justice minister, and the prime minister before him, have washed their hands of it, citing the independence of the AG’s office.
A suggestion by the prosecution for Debono to testify behind closed doors was shot down by the magistrate: “Nothing is behind closed doors.”
Neither should the plea bargain struck between Debono, the AG and the police be hidden from the public.