Fiery exchanges forced a magistrate to briefly halt a sitting which heard libel proceedings instituted by Education Minister Owen Bonnici against Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi. 

Bonnici sued Azzopardi over a Facebook post last December where he was described as a criminal.

The minister insisted he was not a criminal and had never been convicted of a crime.  

“In the political arena, many speeches and hurtful words are said. I've learnt to accept that. But to say that someone is a criminal is very serious… I had to take action to safeguard my reputation,” the minister said on Thursday, after unexpectedly taking the witness stand.  

“So do you confirm that Owen Bonnici is a criminal?” Bonnici's lawyer, Paul Lia, asked Azzopardi when the sitting kicked off. 

“And a liar!” replied Azzopardi.

“Which crime do you attribute?”  Lia asked.

“That post was written after…” began Azzopardi, only to be promptly interrupted by Lia, insisting for a straightforward answer to his question.

“Which crime do you attribute to the minister?” he repeatedly asked at the top of his voice.

At this point, Magistrate Rachel Montebello suspended the sitting and retired to chambers, leaving behind a charged atmosphere.

A few minutes later, when calm had been restored,  Magistrate Montebello minuted that Lia’s behaviour and “uncontrolled shouting”  while the court was attempting to address him, was not acceptable.

The magistrate warned she would suspend the hearing if either party persisted in this manner and take any measures it deemed appropriate.

After apologising to the court, Lia said it was in his nature to talk loudly.

Following the heated interlude, Azzopardi explained that he had written that post after publication of the Egrant report, which had been kept under wraps “for months”.

“But which crime did you attribute?” persisted the minister’s lawyer. 

“Did you attribute any crime?” intervened the magistrate.

“No. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a criminal,” Azzopardi replied.

“Whoever does not fight corruption is corrupt,” he added.

So too was whoever persisted in handing out contracts to Nexia BT and sought to justify the actions of Konrad Mizzi.

“Once he has said that there is no crime to attribute, I’ll stop there,” Lia said.

Bonnici then informed the court that he wished to take the witness stand, explaining under oath the reason why he had filed the libel suit and
stressing he had a reputation to safeguard.

“Which is the highest law of the land?” asked Azzopardi’s lawyer, Joseph Zammit Maempel.

“The constitution,” replied the minister.

“Are you aware that you breached that law?” asked the lawyer, making reference to the Daphne Caruana Galizia memorial judgment delivered in January, which had stated that the persistent clearing up of the memorial, under the minister's instructions amounted to a breach of the right to freedom of expression.

Asked further about his reaction to the intention of Christian Kalin of Henley and Partners, to file SLAPP lawsuits against Caruana Galizia and Jason Azzopardi, Bonnici said that he “did not reply” to an email sent to Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri and himself.

“I showed no interest in his action,” the minister said, rebutting allegations that he had somehow conspired to institute those actions.

The case continues next month. 

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