Three conditionally discharged for their part

Three men were yesterday conditionally discharged for a year for their part in the Tal-Barrani riots in 1986 when a group of masked men joined special police in blocking Nationalist Party supporters from entering Zejtun for a political meeting.

Toninu Carabott, 54, of Zejtun, better known as it-Totó, Edwin Bartolo, 51 of Zejtun, better known as il-Qahbu, and Godwin Schembri, 54, of Birkirkara, were found guilty of seriously injuring Rose Gauci, whose nose was bitten, and Salvu Debono who was shot in the knee.

They were also found guilty of slightly injuring 10 men and five women and committing the crimes in the context of an assembly of three or more people, two of whom were carrying firearms to create terror and alarm.

They were also found guilty of causing more than Lm500 damage to 15 cars and one van and causing Lm2,675 worth of damage to public property.

They were also found guilty of wearing a mask or disguise in public, uttering obscene or indecent words and blocking roads.

Alfred Desira, 52 of Zejtun, better known as l-Indjan, was acquitted of all the charges. Joseph Zahra, 43, of Zejtun, had originally also been charged with the four men but the case against him had been thrown out at the conclusion of the compilation of evidence.

Magistrate Dennis Montebello yesterday remarked that he had found the three convicted men's explanations 'ridiculous' particularly since the evidence against them was overwhelming .

He heard how the Constitutional Court had authorised the Nationalist Party to hold a meeting in Zejtun and preparations were made for November 30, 1986.

The party's general secretary, then Louis Galea, had alerted the police commissioner of the party's fear that some 'extremists' could try to obstruct the meeting.

But some people were already working on blocking the roads with stones and rubble during the night of November 29 and the authorities did not seem to take any action, not even when the work continued in their presence the next morning.

When the PN supporters approached, a small group of men tried to hold them back but eventually retreated behind a truck. The fully equipped Special Mobile Unit police had moved in followed by over a hundred people, some of them masked and armed. The mounted police brought up the rear.

Magistrate Montebello said he had heard how the police had sprayed tear gas. Shots were fired and people were injured, some seriously.

The meeting had to be abandoned and the Nationalist Party supporters retreated followed by the mixed army.

They left a lot of damage in their wake although Magistrate Montebello ruled one could not exclude that some PN supporters also caused some damage, particularly to the cars of the police stationed at Tal-Barrani.

The magistrate found the defendants' explanations weak and their allegation that they had left the scene before the incidents started unbelievable.

He however acquitted Desira because his explanation wrought serious doubts as to the identity of the person in the photos exhibited in court.

Desira exhibited a picture of a certain Joseph Butler and the court confirmed that the resemblance was extraordinary. Desira claimed he had gone trapping and had not been anywhere near the revolt.

Magistrate Montebello acquitted him after ruling that the evidence against Desira was scant and that the picture created serious doubts about his involvement.

In deciding on a punishment suitable for the other three men, the magistrate noted how the events took place with the tacit approval of the police who blocked the road, fired shots and tear gas and basically allowed armed and masked men to assist them.

He noted that the men had been facing a maximum three-year jail term and a fine but ruled that the circumstances of the incident were peculiar and aberrant.

This did not excuse the defendants' behaviour but one did have to take into consideration that they had been assisting the authorities or assisted by them and this was an extenuating circumstance although their behaviour had been definitely abusive.

Magistrate Montebello also noted that the case had been going on for a long time and the defendants had been placed under bail restrictions for all these years.

He also remarked that the incident had been tied to the political atmosphere of the time and there had been a change in the conditions and circumstances of all three defendants.