On the same day the police arrested the first of two men being accused of a migrant’s murder, Chief Justice Emeritus Vincent De Gaetano was speaking to university students in Belarus on ‘Hate crimes as a form of discrimination’.

Francesco Fenech, 21, of Marsascala, and Loris Scicluna, 22, of Paola, both members of the Armed Forces of Malta, were specifically charged with Lassine Cisse Souleymane’s murder and the attempted murder of two other migrants on grounds of their skin colour and race.

Dr De Gaetano, who also sits on the European Court of Human Rights, pointed out to his audience a characteristic feature of hate crimes, which the Maltese authorities, in particular, but also the people in general should note if they do not want things to escalate. It bears quoting him verbatim:

“The... impact of (hate crimes) extends beyond the immediate victim or victims. It tends to affect the whole group with which that particu­lar victim identifies himself or herself and can cause social division between the ‘victim group’ and socie­ty at large. It, thus, poses a particular danger to society beyond that which generally stems from an ordinary crime or act of violence.

“People within any society tend to congregate in groups, groups that find their identity in some common purpose, feature, undertaking, understanding or belief – that is, after all, the very essence of the freedom of associa­tion and freedom of assembly.”

Punishment through criminal law could be considered as the reactive method of tackling the problem, he said. Proactive ways of combatting hate crimes mentioned by Dr De Gaetano include training manuals for professionals and educational programmes across the broad spectrum of education. However, he pointed out that, in his opinion, the most effective way to combat such occurrences “is the attitude of politicians and people in authority: they must show, and be seen to be showing, understanding and tolerance towards diversity”.

He noted that, sadly, both in Europe and beyond, many politicians were loath to do this, “as they perceive their political popularity riding on the crest of the historically cyclical waves of populism and racism, the fear of the different, the need for the scapegoat”.

There was so much playing to the gallery over the past few days. No mention of Europe smelling the coffee, of ordering Air Malta to have its planes ready for a pushback opera­tion to send Somali asylum-seekers back to Libya, or of the death of a migrant from Mali while being taken for treatment at a health centre over which five Detention Services and AFM personnel had been arrested.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time but few, very few, paid any real attention. See what civil society had to say in a joint statement over the weekend: “For too long we have ignored the daily experiences of the migrants in our midst and clung to the myth that racist incidents are isolated, and rare, occurrences in Malta. For too long we have accepted without comment, much less condemnation, intolerant views, derogatory comments and inflammatory speeches.”

The arraignment of two soldiers charged with a migrant’s murder is nowhere near enough to deal with the reality we are facing. If anything, it underscores the need for immediate, robust and effective action to ensure things do not get out of hand.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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