Council of Europe rapporteur and Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt has expressed alarm about a lawyer’s decision to join Yorgen Fenech’s defence team right after quitting his job as a public prosecutor.

In a letter sent to attorney general Peter Grech, Omtzigt warned that the shock move raised “glaring issues of professional ethics and, potentially, criminal liability” and noted that Malta had been advised to guard against such cases as far back as 2014.

Times of Malta reported last week that lawyer Charles Mercieca had quit the attorney general’s office to branch out on his own, with Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech as his first client.

Mercieca said he was not involved in the Fenech case while working as a public prosecutor. But that assurance, along with a similar one made by the Justice Ministry, did not reassure the Caruana Galizia family.

The family has written to the Commission for the Administration of Justice – the body tasked with overseeing the work of the courts, judiciary and lawyers – asking it to assess whether Mercieca breached lawyers’ code of ethics and the law when he took on the Fenech brief.

In his letter to the attorney general, Omtizgt expressed doubts about the legitimacy of Mercieca’s switch.

“Other than as a trainee or intern, his only professional experience was in your office. This gives rise to a strong suspicion that he was only retained by Mr Fenech because of his inside knowledge of the Office of the Attorney General,” Omtzigt wrote.

Omtzigt authored a Council of Europe parliamentary assembly report into the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder and concerns about Malta’s rule of law.

The Dutch MP said that while Mercieca may not have worked on the Fenech case, this did not exclude the possibility that the lawyer had accessed case files or discussed the case with his colleagues at the attorney general’s office.

Omtzigt also noted that back in 2014, a Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) evaluation had made mention of such a scenario.

In the report, evaluators noted that Maltese authorities had “admitted that it was not uncommon for former members of the AG office to join law firms later on” and that  “they themselves were of the view that this is an issue that they would like to see covered in a code of ethics for the prosecution service”.

The GRECO report noted that while public prosecutors are bound by the Code of Ethics for public sector employees and Code of Ethics for advocates, the attorney general's office did not have their own specific code.

"The staff working in the AG Office recognised that having their own code, adapted to the specificities of their work, could be beneficial," report writers noted.

Omtzigt warned the attorney general that the situation required immediate action to avoid “irreversible harm” to the Caruana Galizia murder case.

“After a period during which some progress seemed to have been made, it would be an unconscionable and unforgivable failure on the part of the Maltese authorities to allow Mr Mercieca’s disloyalty to undermine this hugely important case,” he wrote.

Omtzigt ended his letter with a series of questions for the attorney general, in which he asked, among other things, whether it was possible for Mercieca to have accessed information related to Fenech case, whether his switch to the Fenech team breached any local ethical codes and what the attorney general could do about it. 

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