The police force should have stricter recruitment procedures that identify and weed out applicants with dubious histories, experts have said, after the shocking arraignment of three police officers charged with assaulting foreigners.
The arraignment of the three officers was “a terrible wake up call for everyone” that Malta needs to tackle the growing racist and anti-migrant sentiments, Neil Falzon director of human rights foundation Aditus.
Police constables Rica Mifsud Grech, Jurgen Falzon and Luca Brincat were charged with abducting and grievously injuring foreign nationals in Qormi.
It was other fellow police officers who raised the alarm that the three constables, stationed in Ħamrun, allegedly abducted people and took them to Qormi, assaulted them, and left them there.
After the incidents, Falzon said the police force needs to reach out to foreign communities, particularly those in Ħamrun, and underline they are safe.
“A community meeting could be organised, giving everyone the chance to express concerns and maybe even talk about other incidents. We also need to turn our attention to victims of police brutality,” Falzon said.
“The state should offer them full psychological and emotional support. Where needed, they should also be given a form of compensation.”
The immediate action of police was welcomed by Aditus and the Malta Refugee Council.
“We’re shocked but not too surprised. Anti-migrant sentiment has been on the rise and very little has been done to counter it,” Falzon said, adding that the need for action was urgent.
Regine Psaila, from the African Media Association Malta, said black people in the country have a very strong feeling they are worth nothing, especially after the incidents which climaxed in the murder of Ivorian man Lassana Cisse in 2019.
Like Falzon, Psaila agrees something needs to be done to ensure these communities feel safe.
“How can one live in peace in a place where law enforcement officers inspire fear among innocent citizens?” she asked.
“We salute the step to clean up the police force from its bad elements and hope the move will trigger a better relationship between the migrants’ community and those who are supposed to protect them,” Psaila added.
One of the ways to bring about this change is training in how to deal with people of different cultures.
“This should go hand-in-hand with training on the police force’s legal and ethical obligations in relation to relations with communities, whether Maltese or non-Maltese,” Psaila said.
“Yet, training alone will not wipe out racism, it will remind officers of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.
“Together with training, stronger enforcement of the law is needed with a zero tolerance approach to racism and violence,” Psaila noted.
Working with communities
Marcelle Bugre, a social worker who has worked with migrant communities, spoke about the need to have a collaborative approach towards integration.
“People with low income and low job security will settle in cheap housing; this is how some migrant communities have settled in Marsa and Ħamrun,” Bugre said.
“This is something we have foreseen for a number of years, that without a collaborative peace-building project, that engages the communities, local councils, service providers and police, a wall will be built between different groups, and isolation and abuse will then become more possible.”
Police officers and other professionals may be attending training, but at home and with friends they may be expressing values that are contrary to such training.
“Leaders cannot assume people are ethical just by listening to their words. They need to ask questions and ensure the safety of those who speak up. Without these measures, people who are made to feel afraid, lose trust, and after the truth comes out, they are often blamed for not speaking up,” she said.
“We need to build safety, sanction intimidation and harassment, and include everyone in making sure these atrocities are not happening in our services and our places of work,” she said.
The arraignment of the three constables happened a few months after the setting up of the Anti-Racism Platform, set up as part of the Anti-Racism Strategy launched a year ago.
The strategy aims to eliminate racism and support intercultural inclusion by developing a policy to establish equality and human rights standards expected from law enforcement agencies and immigration services and work to tackle under-reporting, among other things.
Timeline... when members of institutions failed to properly fulfill their roles
Four of the worst
This was not the first time that members of institutions set up to protect people ended up being accused of assaulting asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.
Here are some of the cases.
Abuse of power
In August 2021, Times of Malta reported how an Egyptian man claimed he was stripped to his underwear and put in solitary confinement for four days after informing a detention officer that he was served food that he said had made him sick.
The man told his lawyer he was forced to sleep on a concrete floor and could not contact his lawyer or relatives.
In a separate incident, a Moroccan national claimed to have been handcuffed and beaten up by an officer after complaining about living conditions at the so-called China House.
He said he was then kept in a room with a mattress and a toilet for four hours. According to their lawyer, the two detainees did not pose any risk to themselves or others.
Shot dead on his way home
Lassana Cisse, 42, was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Ħal Far as he walked home on April 6, 2019.
Two soldiers – Francesco Fenech and Lorin Scicluna – were accused of his murder as well as the attempted murder of another two men and a hit-and-run incident that was exposed by Times of Malta. All four victims were black.
Back then, community leader Ousmane Dicko said: “The migrant community is very afraid at the moment as we have seen people who were supposed to be protecting us carry out such acts.”
Beaten in a van
On June 29, 2012, Malian Mamadou Kamara, 32, died while in the custody of Detention Services and Armed Forces of Malta personnel. Three detention services officers were charged with his murder.
In March 2017, AFM soldier Gordon Pickard took the witness stand in the compilation of evidence against the other two other soldiers, Mark Anthony Dimech and Clive Cuschieri.
Pickard himself has been acquitted. He had recounted how Kamara, who was causing trouble, ran away from custody and during recapture Cuschieri kicked him twice in the abdomen as the migrant was trying to get to his feet.
The three officials put Kamara into the van and after calling at the Safi barracks to bind the migrant’s hands and feet with handcuffs, they proceeded to the health centre.
Kamara, however, was dead.
Beaten during a peaceful protest
In January 2005, 27 immigrants were injured, some seriously, after armed forces members beat them during a peaceful protest at Safi Barracks. Two soldiers were hurt too.
About 95 detainees were protesting against their lengthy detention.
An inquiry concluded that the order to use force to return the migrants indoors was justified but the force applied by several soldiers “was exaggerated and out of proportion in the circumstances”.
The report, drawn up by Mr Justice Franco Depasquale, said government should take the steps necessary so that soldiers and policemen would be trained on how to control immigrants. Many human rights activists at the time had deemed the inquiry a whitewash.