Former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil argued in court today that he said nothing defamatory in a speech in Valletta held in connection with the Panama Papers revelations.
He was testifying in libel proceedings instituted by the prime minister's chief of staff, Keith Schembri, who insisted he never received kickbacks.
“I believe that I said nothing defamatory in my speech. I only declared facts. God forbid if facts are considered to be defamatory too, Dr Busuttil said when answering questions.
I only declared facts. God forbid if facts are considered to be defamatory too.- Simon Busuttil
The suit revolves around the speech delivered by the then PN leader on March 6, 2016 in a national protest against corruption.
The former PN leader was questioned by Dr Pawlu Lia, one of the counsel assisting Mr Schembri, who is claiming that the allegation of corruption made by Dr Busuttil amounted to libel.
Asked whether he possessed any documentation to substantiate his claims, Dr Busuttil pointed out that the protest had been directed against the government in general. Mr Schembri had been mentioned in the light of his ownership of a secret company in Panama.
Moreover, this was the same man involved in the major contracts concluded by this administration, including the deal with Electrogas as well as the privatisation of three state hospitals, Dr Busuttil continued.
“Did you mean to say that Keith Schembri carried out acts of corruption?” Dr Lia asked, prompting defence lawyer Peter Fenech to insist that the libel was limited solely to what had been declared during the protest speech and that such generic questions by the applicant's lawyer were meant solely to grab the media headlines.
Dr Busuttil pointed out that although Mr Schembri received an annual salary of €50,000 and had renounced to his involvement in private business, yet he had bound himself to deposit €1 million annually in a secret offshore trust.
"Any ordinary person, including myself, would question this?" Dr Busuttil continued.
Quoting from Transparency International, Dr Busuttil said “corruption takes many forms… it always involves the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”
“So are you saying that Keith Schembri abused of power for private gain?” Dr Lia was quick to ask, causing Dr Fenech to point out that the libel case was about what his client had said during the mass protest and not statements made today on the witness stand.
At this point, Magistrate Francesco Depasquale presiding over the proceedings, pointed out that since he had not been presented with a transcript of the allegedly defamatory speech delivered by the former Opposition leader, he could not determine the context wherein any references to Mr Schembri had been made.
Asked by Dr Lia once again whether he had implied that Mr Schembri was corrupt, Dr Busuttil explained that the chief of staff had a secret company in Panama which he set up after the general election. “The mere fact of
“The mere fact of discovery of such a secret company raises suspicion everywhere except Malta,” the witness remarked, stressing further that for a whole year he had asked the authorities to investigate but they did not do their job.
“I expected the Police Commissioner and the AG to investigate Keith Schembri, asking them even in public. Now even the Chief Justice has spoken about a breakdown in the rule of law,” Dr Busuttil explained further, prompting Dr Lia to comment that this was a “political speech by an ex Opposition leader.”
As the atmosphere inside the crowded courtroom got tense, remarks were made by Dr Lia regarding emails allegedly exchanged between the former Opposition leader and Dr Manfred Galdes of the Finance Intelligence Unit, prompting Dr Fenech to draw the court’s attention to the fact that these remarks clearly fell outside the scope of the libel suit.
Schembri denies allegations
Mr Schembri, who was next on the witness stand, denied allegations made about him by the PN.
“I've been quiet all this time but now at last I can give my side of the story. I did not attend a cabinet meeting to come to court today,” he said.
“I never received any kickbacks… Had I been after money, I would not have left my 12 or 13 companies, which were all doing well, to take up my position with the Prime Minister,” Mr Schembri declared.
I never received any kickbacks… Had I been after money, I would not have left my 12 or 13 companies, all doing well, to take up my position with the Prime Minister.- Keith Schembri
Regarding monies passed on to Adrian Hillman (former managing director of Allied Newspapers), the court heard how these represented payments for works done and had all been regularly documented.
Mr Schembri said that after the allegations at the mass protest, all the spots on the PN media stated that he was corrupt. Yet, despite being on the witness stand more more than an hour, Dr Busuttil still had provided no proof of such allegations.
“I shall continue to pursue him for as long as he continues to make such allegations,” Mr Schembri stressed, remarking he had been unable to speak out both on account of his official position and also because of the medical situation which he had gone through.
“All this time I had to face a trial by the media,” the PM's right-hand man concluded.
The court ordered Mr Schembri’s legal team to provide a transcript of the public speech at the centre of the libel and to indicate therein the allegedly defamatory parts.
The case continues.
Lawyers Pawlu Lia, Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo assisted Mr Schembri.
Lawyer Peter Fenech assisted Dr Busuttil.