Former President George Abela testified on Thursday that while he was president he believed that responsibility fell squarely upon his shoulders when events were organised by the Malta Community Chest Fund.
He was testifying in the compilation of evidence in a case instituted by the police against a number of people involved in the organisation of the 2015 edition of Paqpaqli ghal l-Istrina motorshow in which a supercar crash injured 21.
Until Thursday’s sitting, witnesses had sounded uncertain over the way the Malta Community Chest Fund functioned.
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who testified last week, said the motorshow was a 'third party event' in which she played no direct role.
Dr Abela explained how things had worked out under his presidency.
He stressed throughout his lengthy testimony that, at the end of the day, responsibility for any event organised under the umbrella organisation of the MCCF, landed squarely in the lap of the President.
He explained how according to the MCCF statute, decisions were taken at the level of the Board of Administrators, made up of constituted and nominated members and presided over by the President.
Events were overseen by a central committee, presided over by the President’s aide de camp, at the time Capt. Mark Mallia, who coordinated the various sub-committees tasked with different fundraising activities, a major one being Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina.
Under his presidency, this central committee used to meet in the dining room at San Anton Palace. President Abela said he used to attend, making it a point to ensure he was fully briefed on the outcome whenever he was unable to make it to a meeting.
“The decision-maker was Mark Mallia but all were on board and ultimately I bore responsibility for those decisions,” Dr Abela stressed, explaining further how at the start of his term he had built a team of experts and enthusiasts who, on a voluntary basis, had joined forces to continue the annual car event which had already established itself as a great crowd-puller.
“Tonio Darmanin was the kingpin,” Dr Abela continued, recalling how he had been the first to approach the well-known local car enthusiast, roping in other volunteers who together made up a team whose main aim was not to collect funds but to join forces towards a good cause.
“Especially in view of the particular situation prevalent in our country at the time (namely, 2014), the central aim of the Presidency was to enhance unity among the people and also to promote a healthy lifestyle,” Dr Abela explained.
His raison d’etre as President had been to work with volunteers rather than compete with them.
Referring to the members of the Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina core committee who had given their time and expertise on his team, some of them today seated in court among those facing criminal charges, the former President squarely declared “I have nothing but words of praise for these people.”
“Yes, obviously there were hiccups along the way, but I always would step in personally to iron out tensions among members of the team, since the important message was not money but that all stakeholders worked together for a good cause,” Dr Abela stressed.
Asked whether the organization of Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina differed in any manner from that of other charity events such as Rockestra or the August Moon Ball, Dr Abela replied that the same methodology had been used for all events.
This reply prompted presiding magistrate Aaron Bugeja to point out to the former president how in past sittings, various witnesses had drawn a distinction between MCCF events and other so-called third party events, relegating Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina to this latter category.
“In my time there were no such third party events, there was one model throughout. The ultimate responsibility fell to the President even if the event was organized by the MCCF,” Dr Abela was quick to reply.
“Paqpaqli għall-Istrina was definitely a MCCF event. It was a great crowd-puller and it definitely fell under the presidency,” he continued.
The former President also shed light upon the meticulous detail and tremendous effort which used to be employed in the organisation of the annual car show during his term of office, explaining how the organizing committee had received invaluable knowledge from McLaren when the latter had been involved in a visit to Malta by Lewis Hamilton in 2012.
During his time, logistics played a crucial part and all necessary precautions were taken to ensure protection not only of the general public but also of drivers and property.
For this reason, the structuring of the track was vital, ensuring that cars started off at a slow speed close to the spectators’ area and gradually accelerated away from the public, Dr Abela explained, confirming that chicanes were never designed close to spectators.
Moreover, there used to be markings on the track indicating where drivers were to slow down and even brake.
“The whole track was meticulously mapped out. These were fine details I personally used to make sure were observed,” Dr Abela declared.
Even barriers were carefully planned, with crowd control barriers patrolled by police. The public behind these barriers was separated from the track by a buffer zone lined with water-filled barriers which were, moreover, bound together for added strength “a detail learnt from the McLaren booklet,” Dr Abela observed, adding further one member from the organising committee would personally supervise the placing of the barriers ensuring that they were filled with water.
The event had always been covered by an appropriate insurance policy, issued under expert advice and in line with risk assessment reports duly discussed with all stakeholders concerned, the court was told.
“All these events, with all the benefits, responsibilities and commitment they entailed, were organised by the presidency” concluded the former President.
Police inspectors Josric Mifsud, Silvio Magro and Hubert Cini are prosecuting.
Lawyers Giannella DeMarco and Stephen Tonna Lowell are counsel to Paul Bailey.
Lawyer Joe Giglio is counsel to Tonio Darmanin. Lawyer Stefano Filletti is counsel to Brian Gatt and Julian Manara. Roberto Montalto, Michael Grech, Shazoo Ghaznavi, Alessia Zammit Mackeon, Reuben Farrugia.
Arthur Azzopardi is defence counsel for Ian Cilia Pisani, Kevin Perry and Chris Sultana. Other members of the Paqpaqli team are being assisted by Dr Michael Sciriha, Dr Raphael Fenech Adami and Dr Albert Zerafa.
Franco Debono and Amadeus Cachia are among the lawyers appearing parte civile for the victims.
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