Five people have been charged with the involuntary homicide of 20-year-old worker Jean Paul Sofia, who died in a construction site collapse at the Corradino Industrial Estate last December.
The five are the construction project’s two developers, the project architect and the two directors of the contracting firm carrying out works at the time.
Kurt Buhagiar, 37 and from Naxxar, 38-year-old Birkirkara resident Matthew Schembri, 35-year-old Żabbar architect Adriana Zammit, contractor Milomir Jovicevic, 39 and from Serbia and his wife and company co-director Dijana Jovicevic, 38 and from Bosnia and Herzegovina, all pleaded not guilty to criminal charges.
Aside from involuntary homicide, all five stand accused of having caused grievous injuries to five workers who were at the site when the building collapsed.
Schembri, one of the developers, is also alleged to have falsified a signature on the project’s commencement notice – an official document that must be submitted to authorities before works can begin.
Zammit is also separately charged with failing to conduct works according to industrial practices and standards.
Schembri, Buhagiar and the Jovicevic couple were also charged with various breaches of occupational health and safety rules.
A court presided by magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras granted all five bail.
An arrest at the beach
The five accused were brought to court under arrest and after spending two nights in police custody following their arrest on Friday evening.
One of them, Dijana Jovicevic, is weeks away from giving birth and was in hospital, police inspector and prosecutor Paul Camilleri told the court. Both she and her husband cooperated with investigators, he said.
Another, Zammit, was found by police at the beach with her minor child. She also immediately cooperated.
Buhagiar and Schembri reported to a police station voluntarily but refused their letter of rights after police did not give them a full copy of the magisterial inquiry leading to their arrest. A legal bid to have their arrest declared invalid was rebuffed by a court on Saturday.
The Sunday evening arraignment sets the stage for the highest-profile criminal case related to construction since a similar collapse in 2020 killed Miriam Pace inside her own home.
In that case, two architects were first fined by a court and then had that punishment increased to a suspended sentence on appeal. A contractor and demolition worker who were also charged is still awaiting trial after opting to have their case heard by a jury.
Sofia was killed on a Saturday morning as he was delivering tools to the Corradino construction site. It took rescue crews 16 hours to find his body within the construction rubble. Five other workers at the site were also grievously injured in the collapse.
A case that drew national attention
The tragedy – the latest in a long string of construction-related deaths and incidents – drew particular attention as it happened at a government-owned industrial estate, on land leased to the developers by state-run INDIS.
The building that collapsed was meant to be a timber factory, designed by Zammit and developed by Schembri and Buhagiar as a joint venture through their company Allplus Limited, set up just months before they obtained the land lease.
Public anger about Sofia’s death grew as the government repeatedly ignored calls by the victim’s family to hold a public inquiry into the incident, independent of criminal proceedings. The Prime Minister caved in to those demands last week.
Days later, the magistrate leading the inquiry into the case concluded her work, leading to Friday’s arrests and Sunday’s arraignments.
Bail granted despite objections
Prosecutors objected to bail requests, citing a variety of reasons ranging from the fear that defendants would flee the country to concerns about bail sparking a public outcry.
Defence lawyers heaped scorn on those objections, noting that the prosecution had earlier said they never feared the accused would abscond, and arguing that a court could not be swayed by concerns about protests or public opinion.
Following a brief deliberation, the magistrate ruled that all five should be granted bail.
Schembri, Buhagiar, Zammit and Milomar Jovicevic were granted bail subject to a personal deposit of €15,000, a personal guarantee of €25,000 and an order to sign to sign a bail book twice a week.
Dijana Jovicevic, who is charged in her capacity as a company director, not personally, must pay a deposit of €5,000 and personal guarantee of €15,000. The magistrate also granted her a measure of flexibility in signing the bail book, given that Jovicevic is weeks away from giving birth.
The case will now proceed to the compilation of evidence stage.
Inspectors Paul Camilleri and Antonello Magri prosecuted.
Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Franco Debono and Jacob Magri represented Buhagiar and Schembri.
Zammit was represented by lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell. Milomir Jovicevic and Dijana Jovicevic were represented by lawyer Timothy Bartolo.
The Sofia family was represented by lawyers Joe Giglio and David Bonello.
As it happened
Live blog ends
8.20pm That wraps up proceedings in the courtroom tonight. The case is adjourned to the start of the compilation of evidence.
Thank you for having joined us. We will have a summary of the evening's proceedings available at the top of the article shortly.
8.18pm Four of the five will have to pay a personal deposit of €15,000, a personal guarantee of €25,000 and sign to sail a bail book twice a week to get bail.
The fifth, Dijana Jovicevic, has reduced requirements, as she is facing charges in her capacity as a company director, not personally. The magistrate also grants her a measure of flexibility in signing the bail book, given that she is due to give birth in a matter of weeks.
All five get bail
8.02pm The magistrate returns to court and decrees that the defence's bail request is upheld. All five will be going home after posting the guarantees and deposits to be imposed by the court.
What are the criminal charges?
7.52pm While we wait for the magistrate’s bail decision, we’ve managed to get a copy of the criminal charges the five are facing.
All five accused have been charged with involuntary homicide and causing grievous injuries to five other workers.
Adriana Zammit also faces charges of having failed to conduct works according to industrial practices and standards.
Matthew Schembri is also charged with having falsified a signature on the project’s commencement notice and knowingly making use of that falsified document.
Schembri, Buhagiar and Milomar and Dijana Jovicevic also face charges related to several health and safety breaches.
Magistrate ponders bail decision
7.35pm Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras returns to her chambers to consider the defendants' bail requests.
Bail arguments continue
7.32pm Defence lawyers are continuing to make their case(s) for bail for their clients. Everything the prosecutor said today shows that they satisfy bail requirements, they argue.
Prosecution: CCF 'equipped to deal with pregnancy'
7.26pm It’s the prosecution’s turn to rebut.
The inspector insists that the accused had no clear indication of the charges until they received them. They could have had thoughts, but they had no certainty.
He dismisses the comparison to the Miriam Pace case, saying that no third parties were injured [and therefore have to testify] in that case.
As for Jovicevic’s pregnancy, Corradino Correctional Facility is equipped to deal with that, he says.
'It's almost an insult to lawyers'
7.22pm Lawyer Timothy Bartolo notes that aside from his client Dijana Jovevic being weeks away from giving birth (“her condition must be taken into consideration”, he says) the two also have a two-year-old child and have lived in Malta for years. They have ties here, Bartolo argues.
Lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell notes that his client [Adriana Zammit] is also the mother to a young child. The case against her rests on what the court-appointed expert said in the magisterial inquiry, he says (rather than civilian testimony).
He says he cannot understand how his client was brought to court under arrest, when she is charged with two involuntary crimes and a “technical offence”.
He also notes that public protests concerned calls for a public inquiry, not this case.
Tonna Lowell is also incensed by the prosecution's implication that the accused might abscond now that they know of the charges.
Lawyer cites Miriam Pace precedent
7.18pm Lawyer Arthur Azzopardi highlights a similar case held on April 15, 2020, with most of the same lawyers present.
“Bail was granted that same day,” he says, noting that the attorney general had not appealed that decision. “Wasn’t there outcry in that case [too]?” he asks.
“The prosecution’s argument here implies that the accused should never get bail.”
Azzopardi is referring to the Miriam Pace house collapse case – the date he cited was the date when the accused in that case were arraigned.
Defence snaps back
7.09pm Defence lawyer Franco Debono argues that the inspector has contradicted himself, having previously said the accused did not try to escape.
He also heaps scorn on the prosecution’s argument that bail should be denied because of the public outcry it would induce.
“God forbid these courts were to start deciding according to public outcry, rather than justice and righteousness,” he says. People’s right to protest should have no bearing on a bail decision, he argues.
He emphasises that his clients have known for the past months that they are being investigated, and always cooperated at each stage.
Fear of absconding
7.07pm Prosecutors add another objection to the defence’s bail request – the fear that the accused could flee. The inspector say that fear exists for all the accused, not just the two foreign ones.
“It’s true that months have passed, but before now they did not know what charges they would be facing,” he says.
Some civilian witnesses are overseas, he adds.
All five request bail
7.03pm All five request bail. Unsurprisingly, the prosecution objects, citing the gravity of the case and public outcry.
“We know that people protested out there. And if granted bail, there would be more outcry,” the inspector argues.
Prosecutors add that some witnesses who will be testifying in the compilation of evidence had refused to testify to the magisterial inquiry, because they feared they would be charged criminally.
"These include workers who got hurt," the prosecution says. (Aside from Sofia, who died in the collapse, five other workers were hurt).
Five plead not guilty
7pm Each of the five is asked to confirm their personal details - name, age, address and profession.
They all plead not guilty to criminal charges.
Architect arrested at the beach
6.56pm Architect Adriana Zammit was at the beach when police caught up with her on Friday. The inspector says a police officer approached her "prudently" as she was with her child. The architect cooperated immediately, he says.
Dijana Jovicevic is eight months pregnant
6.54pm The inspector confirms, answering questions by lawyer Timothy Bartolo, that Milomir and Dijana Jovicevic never sought to approach witnesses or escape. They were cooperative, he confirms.
It's an especially difficult situation for Dijana Jovicevic: the inspector confirms that she's in her last month of pregnancy and that he only spoke to her today for the first time, because she was in hospital.
Defence pushes on habeas corpus issue
6.46pm On Saturday, lawyers for Schembri and Buhagiar sought to nullify their arrests, on the basis that they had not been given a full copy of the material evidence against them.
The court rejected that application, but lawyer Franco Debono is emphasising this issue this evening.
Debono asks the inspector questions.
The inspector confirms that the two had testified as part of the magisterial inquiry some months ago.
He says that until Friday evening, the police did not have a copy of the full inquiry.
“Was it denied to you?” Debono asks.
“I was told by the attorney ġeneral that it could not be handed over in full yet,” he replied. “The AG said the inquiry was still being vetted.”
The inspector says police received the proces verbal on Friday. He received a copy of the inquiry – though not a full copy – on Saturday evening.
Debono divulges that it was his clients who went to the police voluntarily, and emphasises that while they refused the letter of rights - because they wanted a copy of the full inquiry - they accepted their arrest.
Architect's statement 'proved useless'
6.41pm The inspector tells the court about Matthew Schembri and Kurt Buhagiar's legal bid to have their arrest invalidated. He says the two "refused their letter of rights" initially.
He also notes that a statement given by architect Adriana Zammit 'proved useless'.
"We continued interrogating today. Some answered, some didn't," he says.
Inspector testifies about arrest
6.37pm Inspector Paul Camilleri is the first to testify.
He tells the court that police were told that the magisterial inquiry was concluded on Friday and subsequently obtained arrest warrants for the five accused that afternoon. By 8.30pm, they had all been arrested - two of the five went to the police station voluntarily.
Accused handed criminal charges
6.25pm We're a few minutes behind schedule, but proceedings can now get under way.
The accused have been given a copy of the criminal charges they are facing. Police earlier indicated that all five will face charges of involuntary homicide. We're informed there are also other charges related to breaches of health and safety laws and even falsifying signatures - but that is unverified at this stage.
We'll get you details of the charges as soon as we get hold of them.
All in court
6.20pm The five accused have been brought to the courthouse by the police.
And inspectors Paul Camilleri and Antonello Magri, who will be prosecuting, are also here.
Missing: prosecution and accused
6.15pm We're still waiting for prosecutors and the five defendants to make an appearance - we're told the five accused people have not arrived in court yet.
Rather than wait in court, the magistrate returns to her chambers for now.
Interpreter for foreign accused
6.11pm An interpreter is in court to assist Milomir and Dijana Jovecevic, who are both foreign nationals.
Milomir Jovecevic, who is Serbian, was the contractor carrying out works at the Corradino site. Dijana Jovecevic, who is listed as a Bosnian national on the Malta Business Register, is a co-director of his company, Milmar Construction Ltd.
6.10pm We spotted three lawyers accompanying Sofia's family into court, but only two of them, Joe Giglio and David Bonello, will be formally representing the family in this case.
6.05pm Matthew Schembri and Kurt Buhagiar, the project's two developers, were represented by a trio of lawyers when they filed a court application on Saturday, contesting the legality of their arrest.
All three - Franco Debono, Arthur Azzopardi and Jacob Magri - are here today, too.
The project's architect, Adriana Zammit, is represented by lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell.
And contractors Milomir Jovicevic and Dijana Jovicevic are represented by lawyer Timothy Bartolo.
6.02pm Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras is in court. So too is Sofia's mother, Isabelle Bonnici. Lawyers David Bonello, Joe Giglio and Therese Comodini Cachia are with her.
Arraignment in jury hall
6.01pm Today's arraignment will happen in hall 22 of the Valletta law courts - the largest courtroom and one usually reserved for jury trials. With five people in the dock, their lawyers and potentially family members present, court marshalls need all the room they can get.
5.55pm Good evening and welcome to this live blog.
It's been almost eight months since the building that took Jean Paul Sofia's life came crashing down, and the cogs of justice are finally turning.
A magisterial inquiry into the incident was wrapped up last week, five suspects were arrested on Friday night and they will now be charged with having involuntary killed Sofia.