Four prison inmates, out of 12 currently serving life imprisonment for murder, have been ordered to serve solitary confinement, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.

In the most recent case, the Criminal Court handed down a 10-day term of solitary confinement to Bojan Cmelik, who was jailed for life for the murder of entertainment mogul Hugo Chetcuti in Paceville in July 2018.

A jury returned an eight-one guilty verdict finding Serbian national Cmelik, 39, guilty of the wilful homicide of the 52-year-old businessman, who died six days after the attack. The life sentence means Cmelik will never leave prison. The victim’s son, Luke Chetcuti, said the judgment sent out a clear message: that ruthless, cold-blooded murder will be punished harshly.

“My father was taken away from all my family and friends. He can never return, but we find comfort in the fact the justice system sent a clear message,” Chetcuti told Times of Malta.

The law allows a judge to order terms of solitary confinement in cases of serious crimes such as murder. Yet, over the past years, social well-being experts have called on the authorities to abolish solitary confinement which, they claim, increases the likelihood of a prisoner committing even more violent crimes.

Concern about solitary confinement has been raised by the dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, Andrew Azzopardi, together with the senior lecturer at the Faculty of Laws, Ruth Farrugia and research support officer Jamie Bonnici.

In a report presented to parliament, they argued that solitary confinement could result in increased anxiety and depression, ‘sociophobia’ (when a person loses the ability to interact with other people), hallucinations, panic attacks, memory loss and paranoia.

The four cases

Cmelik’s case brought the number of inmates facing solitary confinement to four. The others include Norbert Schembri, who was condemned to life imprisonment for the murder of 32-year-old Josette Scicluna by stabbing her 49 times in front of their seven-year-old daughter in May 2004. He was also sentenced to three 10-day periods of solitary confinement.

In 2011, Brian Vella started serving life imprisonment after an appeals court confirmed his conviction that included solitary confinement. He murdered his neighbours, an elderly couple, at their Santa Luċija home on February 10, 2000. He gagged and bound 79-year-old Gerald Grima and his 63-year-old wife, Josephine, in their flat, before proceeding to ransack their house, stealing personal effects worth €460.

In 2012, Nizar El Gadi was sentenced to life in prison after jurors found him guilty of murdering his former wife Margaret Mifsud.  Mifsud, a lawyer, was found asphyxiated in her car in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq on April 19, 2012.  El Gadi was also given solitary confinement for 10 days five times a year.

Following the recent judgment, Azzopardi once again called for legislative changes to preclude the state from using solitary confinement as a tool for “heightened oppression”.

“Our criminal justice system needs to invest in rehabilitative structures and social care services to ensure we have inmates who go through the system and are better positioned to behave as active and responsible citizens instead of the other way around. Methods based on fear and distress do nothing to contribute to that. While I can only imagine the pain of the families who find themselves without their loved ones, as a state we need to decide whether we need to go down the road of discipline, punishment and rehabilitation or one of retaliation and revenge,” he said.

What is solitary confinement?

Malta’s Criminal Code defines solitary confinement as “keeping the person sentenced to imprisonment, during one or more terms in the course of any such punishment, continuously shut up in the appointed place within the prison, without permitting any other person, not employed on duty nor specially authorised by the minister responsible for the prisons, to have access to him”.

A term cannot be longer than 10 days. The law states that a court can give solitary confinement in specific cases, including murder.

Before handing down the judgment, the court must ensure – if necessary by medical evidence – that the person convicted is fit to undergo the punishment. If in the course of solitary confinement, the medical officer of the prison certifies that the prisoner is no longer fit, the execution of that punishment has to be suspended until the prisoner is again certified to be medically fit.

The law does not allow more than 12 terms of solitary confinement. Each term cannot be longer than 10 days with an interval of two months between one term and another.

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