Updated 1.49pm with PL statement

Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi has lost a libel case he had instituted against Justice Minister Owen Bonnici in the wake of controversy over the valuation of a property in Qormi - the former Löwenbräu brewery - which the former Nationalist government had transferred to entrepreneur Nazzareno Vassallo.

Dr Azzopardi had instituted proceedings in January last year after Dr Bonnici said he had information that Mr Vassallo had met Dr Azzopardi (when he was parliamentary secretary responsible for government property) and he had assured him that 'a compromise' would be reached on the value of the land.

The land was subsequently transferred at 1990 prices, thus being under-declared by some €7 million.

Dr Azzopardi had denied the claim.

Dr Bonnici argued that he had made a fair comment on an issue of public interest, adding that his comment was based on sworn testimony.

Magistrate Francesco Depasquale found that the assertion by Dr Bonnici was substantially correct in that it was based on testimony in another court by Mr Vassallo. Mr Vassallo was not summoned to testify in the libel proceedings so as to confirm or contradict his sworn statement.

Tonio Fenech, the former finance minister under whose portfolio was the Lands Department headed by then Parliamentary Secretary Dr Azzopardi, had also been reported to have said “If Zaren Vassallo had come to speak to me I would have sent him to Jason. If his file had been brought to me, I would have sent it to Jason. But none of those things happened.”

Yet, Mr Fenech was never summoned to testify in the libel suit, the court observed.

Furthermore, Dr Bonnici had also based his comments on a report by the Auditor-General. This could be considered as a political comment and could not be considered as defamatory.

Labour: Azzopardi must shoulder political responsibility

In a reaction to the court's decision, the Labour Party said Dr Azzopardi must shoulder political responsibility for the Löwenbräu land scandal. 

The PL said its statements and those by Dr Bonnici had been proven right by the court because they were based on documents and the testimony of Nazzareno Vassallo, who had benefited from the deal. 

Dr Azzopardi should, therefore, assume political responsibility. 

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