Money laundering and tax evasion proceedings against four Libyan men suspected of illegally moving millions of euros through the airport were off to a false start on Thursday after their lawyers requested the sitting magistrate to abstain. 

The four men were escorted to court for the first hearing in the compilation of evidence following their arraignment last month.

However, before the preliminaries were over, the defence pointed out that magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, who was assigned the case, also happened to be the magistrate conducting the in genere inquiry, which can lead to criminal prosecution.

That magisterial inquiry had led to criminal charges being issued against 45-year old building contractor from Ħamrun, Hesham Zayed, 48-year old self-employed Essam Mohamed Edernawi, Khaled Baely and Hdidan Tamer Ramadan Ali.

Charges also targeted five companies represented by Zayed, namely, PHF Ltd, UGT Company Ltd, Express Route Company Ltd, HZ Medical Equipment and Health Services Company Ltd and H&H Investments Ltd.

All pleaded not guilty to the charges and all were remanded in custody upon arraignment where they remain to date. 

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Franco Debono, assisting Zayed and Edernawi and the companies, explained that in terms of law, once the magisterial inquiry had not yet been concluded, Magistrate Frendo Dimech could not preside over the compilation of evidence proceedings.

“It’s either the inquiry being wrapped up or else the magistrate has to abstain,” said the lawyers, highlighting the fact they had “absolute and blind faith” in the particular magistrate concerned. 

“The inquiry is still pending and we don’t know what decisions are to be taken there,” argued Debono, stressing further that this situation explained why it made sense to have particular magistrates handling only inquiries. 

Moreover, in this case, there were other people still under police bai, and therefore, it was obvious that the inquiry could not be wrapped up at this stage, added Debono.

Magistrate Frendo Dimech agreed that the defence “had a point” since the inquiry had not yet been concluded.

“It was up to you to ensure that the inquiry is closed,” said the court, addressing the prosecution.

In light of this unexpected twist of events, the court temporarily suspended the sitting for a decision on the way forward.

When the case resumed at 11.20am, the magistrate observed that the defence’s request had been served upon the AG in the interval and the AG had replied, informing that the magisterial inquiry needed to continue since police investigations were still ongoing. 

In light of that reply, Magistrate Frendo Dimech decreed that since in future she might need to deliver a decision as an inquiring magistrate that could impinge upon the same merits of the criminal case, the only way to go was to uphold the defence’s request for recusal. 

The case was to be re-assigned to another magistrate. 

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Franco Debono, Mario Buttigieg, Mario Mifsud and Christian Camilleri are defence counsel. 

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