Magistrate Nadine Lia has turned down a request to recuse herself from a case concerning Pilatus Bank, in a court decree that condemned “gratuitous” assertions made about her by NGO Repubblika.
The magistrate’s rejection was made public by Repubblika on Wednesday, which says it will now be filing a constitutional case, in a bid to have Lia's decision overturned.
Lia is hearing a case filed by Repubblika against the police commissioner and attorney general, who the NGO says have failed to press charges against various Pilatus officials, despite an inquiry having recommended that more than a year ago.
Conflict of interest claims
Repubblika has however argued that Lia is unfit to hear that case, because of her ties to lawyer Pawlu Lia, who is her father-in-law.
Pawlu Lia also serves as a lawyer to former prime minister Joseph Muscat, and Repubblika says that link means the magistrate has a conflict of interest, given the history involving Pilatus and Muscat.
Muscat was a key figure in an inquiry into the bank that followed a claim made by murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who said that Muscat’s wife owned Egrant, a secret offshore company linked to the Electrogas power station project. He was legally represented by Pawlu Lia during that process.
Muscat’s lawyer also provided legal counsel to Keith Schembri, Muscat’s former chief of staff, who had an account at Pilatus as well.
“It is manifestly not in Muscat and Schembri’s interest to ensure Pilatus Bank directors face charges in a court of law,” Repubblika said.
The NGO says that Pawlu Lia approached its president, Robert Aquilina, in a public place and angrily criticised him about their case – raising Repubblika’s suspicion that the magistrate and her father-in-law had discussed the case privately.
In Wednesday’s decree, magistrate Lia dismissed Repubblika’s recusal requests on the basis that her father-in-law has never represented the five Pilatus officials that the case is about.
She also turned down their request to have her father-in-law appear as a witness in the case, and said that it was beyond the scope of the case she is leading to probe what was said during what she described as a “spontaneous incident”.
In her decree, the magistrate said the way that the NGO had worded some of its requests was "gratuitous", despite it claiming that it had full faith in her personal integrity.
"The applicant's choice of words is their own, and the court will not get involved in that," she added.
Furthermore, the magistrate also said that a notarised, handwritten document featuring extracts of an inquiry into Pilatus which was presented by Repubblika president Robert Aquilina could not be considered an official document and there was no evidence that it was a true copy of the actual inquiry.
Aquilina said last month that Repubblika had a copy of the inquiry conclusions, which have never been made public. Those conclusions included a recommendation to criminally charge six Pilatus Bank officials as well as expert advice to reopen investigations into who owned Egrant.
Apart from Pilatus Bank itself, only one of the six Pilatus Bank officials mentioned in the conclusions – Claude-Ann Sant Fournier – has been charged in court. The other five - Luis Felipe Rivera, Mehmet Tasli, Sayad Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, Antonella Jane Gauci and Hamidreza Ghambari – have not.
Letters to police commissioner, AG
Following the magistrate’s decree, Aquilina sent letters to police commissioner Angelo Gafá and Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg, asking them to confirm that the notarised document he presented to the court was a true copy of the inquiry’s conclusions.
If that was not the case, Aquilina wrote, then they should arrest and charge him right away.
But the magistrate indicated in her decree that she would be inclined to dismiss the recusal request even if Gafá and Buttigieg were to confirm the accuracy of Aquilina’s note.
“Even if the document that the notary Robert Aquilina authenticated was a true copy of the inquiry conclusions, those conclusions say nothing about what the applicant is stating in its request to the court,” Lia wrote, adding that there was no apparent connection between the five Pilatus officials and herself or her family members.
The conclusions presented by Aquilina “say nothing about Egrant,” she said.
Repubblika disputed that assertion, noting that their recusal request made a clear and direct reference to the mysterious offshore company.
In a statement, Repubblika said that it appeared Malta’s judiciary has been “infected”, with some officials within state institutions complicit in the impunity of Joseph Muscat and his allies.
It said it would be filing a constitutional case to overturn Lia’s decree in the coming days.
That case is expected to be assigned to the first hall of the civil court, serving in its constitutional jurisdiction.
“We cannot be left in a situation where Pilatus Bank directors do not face justice because what Keith Schembri and especially Joseph Muscat did must remain hidden.”