Joseph Muscat is right to be sceptical about presidential pardons for suspects of major crimes, which, he said in comments to the press on Monday, only served to help “people walk free”.

One does not have to wade too far back in history to guess which instances he likely had in mind: During the investigation into the almost fatal stabbing in 1994 of Richard Cachia Caruana, the then Prime Minister’s personal assistant, Joseph Fenech – better known as Żeppi l-Ħafi – was granted a pardon over his involvement and one of the men allegedly present at the scene did indeed walk free when the jury concluded the presence of his palm print on the victim’s car in Mdina was… well, let’s just say, a mere coincidence.

Subsequently, the trial of the man accused of masterminding the whole thing also fell apart.

A few years later there was the mess over Ġanni Psaila’s (Il-Pupa) allegations in connection with the killing of Raymond Caruana at the Nationalist Party club in Gudja during the politically turbulent 1980s.

It’s a long story that did not end well, not least for pardon-seeking Psaila who died in somewhat mysterious circumstances (a man crippled by a bomb blast who could apparently skip across rooftops but not spot a shaft for the life of him).

So, two cases involving pardon seekers that did not end well. But even though extreme politicisation may have had something to do with their failure, it is legitimate to ask whether it is an acceptable course of action for prosecuting authorities to seek pardons for individuals charged with murder.

It is legitimate to ask whether it is an acceptable course of action for prosecuting authorities to seek pardons for individuals charged with murder

Wouldn’t the interests of justice be more equitably served if the police nailed everyone involved – from the man at the top to the mercenary who accepted 30 pieces of silver to carry out a paying master’s wishes – and then left the question of cooperation (save for truly exceptional circumstances) to possible plea bargaining or judicial discretion in sentencing? So even though he did not raise those two alternatives, I’m with the Prime Minister on this one. 

But Muscat did not stop there. In response to more questions, he went on to say that speculation over who might have been behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination – no one with any semblance of credibility could possibly still support the notion that this was not an assassination – only serves to help alert potential suspects.

I’m with the Prime Minister on this one too. But only if we are talking about a normal investigation. And, let’s face it, from everything we have seen or not seen of the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder, it has been anything but normal.

Yes, three men suspected of carrying out the killing were arrested two years ago. But they have not yet been tried. And according to a story that appeared in the Times of Malta as long ago as last November, investigators had already identified the man they believe is responsible for commissioning the murder as well as certain accomplices. That’s almost a year ago, yet, apparently, none of these individuals has been brought in for questioning never mind charged. Why?

To make matters worse, recent reports appear to suggest that the people involved may well have links to the political world. So could it be that, in this case at least, the sudden and intense media scrutiny might actually serve the noble purpose of dragging out this mature investigation from deep inside a filing cabinet rather than hindering the quest for justice?

The Prime Minister made other comments that also bear scrutiny: when asked directly whether he was aware of the identity of the “suspects behind the murder”, his reaction was a mixture of generalisation coupled with, dare I say, a hint of contradiction:

“I am not privy to details of investigations [note use of the plural],” he said, “and even if I were in possession of details [he’s just said he isn’t, so why not stop there?]… I certainly wouldn’t talk about them publicly.” All very interesting, but it does not answer the very specific question about whether the Prime Minister is aware of the identity of the suspects involved in this investigation. Yes or no?

Muscat also told the press that although he neither requests nor receives details about the Caruana Galizia investigation, he is briefed by the investigating authorities on “general matters” rather than being provided with “details about individuals”.

This response prompts more questions than it answers: What qualifies as general matters? How do they differ from details? Which investigating authorities brief him? And why is he briefed on criminal investigations, especially those that may have a political connection?

Perhaps he’d care to enlighten us.

Steve Mallia is a former Editor-In-Chief of Times of Malta.

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