Updated, adds details -  A 24-year-old hunter from Cospicua was this evening sentenced to one year in jail and fined €5,000 for yesterday's shooting of a protected kestrel, which led to the early closure of the spring hunting season.

The injured bird landed in the school yard of St Edward's College.

Kirsten Mifsud, known as il-Benghazi,also had his hunting licence revoked and his shotgun was confiscated.

Magistrate Francesco Deqasquale in handing down judgement pointed out that the bird was a protected species and easily distinguishable from the birds which could be hunted during the spring hunting season. There was no doubt that the accused was aware of what he was shooting at, to the extent that he told a witness that he was blinded.

As a result of his actions, the hunting season was closed early, to the detriment of hunters who obeyed the law.

The court pointed out that all this had come about despite a months long debate on hunting which led to the holding of the referendum.

The magistrate also noted that yesterday's incident took place close to a school, and the injured bird fell into the school yard among children, with all the trauma it could have caused them.

The court wondered how hunting so close to a school could be allowed whereas other activities close to schools were severely punished.

The court said it had a duty to convey the message that those who broke the law had to be severely punished.  

An appeal will be filed.

The shot kestrel that fell bleeding into a school yard while students were taking their lunch break yesterday.The shot kestrel that fell bleeding into a school yard while students were taking their lunch break yesterday.

ARRAIGNMENT

Mifsud was arraigned in handcuffs this afternoon. 

Prosecuting Inspector Jurgen Vella told the court how the police got a call from St Edward's College about the shooting of the kestrel and the ALE recovered the bird. He immediately started investigating and was told that a man known as il-Benghazi had fired at the bird.

The inspector produced a shotgun seized from Mr Mifsud's home.

Joseph Aquilina testified that he had been with the accused yesterday. He saw him in firing pose as the bird flew over  and told him 'x'ghamilt?' to which Kirsten Mifsud had replied 'ghamejt' (I went blind).

Three shots were fired and the bird fell in the school.

Mr Aquilina told Mifsud 'Are you mad?' to which Mifsud said that he had 'gone blind'.

Another hunter, Sean Spiteri, said he had also been hunting in the area. He heard three shots and a bird fell. He said the accused was there at the time. He did not see anyone else.

Christopher Bonello said he was also hunting in the area when the shots rang out. He saw two people in the area - il-Benghazi and Sean Spiteri, known as iz-zanna. He said he heard as many as seven shots. He did not know who fired the shots.

The court then heard evidence by Gilbert Haber from the Bird Regulation Unit that Mr Mifsud had a licence to hunt quail and turtle dove.

The accused chose not to testify.

In final submissions, Inspector Vella said Mr Mifsud had been accused of shooting a kestrel. Even if he aimed and fired without hitting the bird, he still should be found guilty. He said Mr Mifsud had not helped in the investigations. The bird, he said, was easily identifiable and Mr Mifsud had deliberately fired at it.

Lawyer Arthur Azzopardi, who appeared on behalf of the hunters' federation, said all the elements existed for Mr Mifsud to be found guilty and the season had been closed because of his actions. Dr Azzopardi, together with lawyer Kathleen Grima appeared parte civile for the FKNK, which, they claimed was a victim in the case because of the early closure of the season.

Defence lawyer Jason Grima pointed out that his client on his own had been accused instead of including the others as well. They all had an interest as they were all there.

Sean Spiteri had been afraid to testify. They were all lying about the most basic fact - the number of shots.  His client was there hunting, and he didn't fire on the bird. An injustice was being committed and his client was being blamed for the closure of the season. Mr Mifsud was not even a member of the FKNK. The witnesses were all colluding to put the blame on him. Furthermore, their testimonies did not match, Dr Grima said.

FKNK PROTESTS COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT, CONSIDERS LEGAL OPTIONS

Meanwhile, Joe Perici Calascione, FKNK hunters' federation president, speaking at a press conference at the same time as the arraignments were taking place, said the federation had unreservedly condemned the shooting of a kestrel. However it objected to the government's discriminatory attitude towards hunters by collectively punishing them because of a handful of criminals, he said.

FKNK president Joe Perici CalascioneFKNK president Joe Perici Calascione

Mr Perici Calascione said collective punishment harmed law-abiding hunters.

"Hunters have collaborated to curb abuse but what message does closing the season give when reporting abuse could potentially harm the interests of law abiding people?"

Lino Farrugia, FKNK CEO, said the poacher accused of the shooting was not a member of the FKNK. He said witnesses testifying against the accused are FKNK members though. This was a sign of collaboration with the authorities to curb abuse.

Mr Perici Calascione said FKNK put all its resources at the disposal of the authorities to fight illegalities. But it made no sense, he added, for hunters to be collectively punished for highlighting the abuse. This was undemocratic.

He criticized bird conservation groups for influencing society against hunters to the point that a killed protected bird got more social media coverage than a migrant tragedy at sea.

He said hunters were being persecuted, making them feel inferior to fellow hunters abroad. "Hunters have taken photographs of protected birds and turtle dove during the hunting curfew but these are not reproduced by the media because it would show hunters as law abiding, normal people," he lamented.

He said the FKNK was studying legal options available to prevent the premature closure of the hunting season because of the abuse perpetrated by the very few.

BIRDLIFE PRESS CONFERENCE

In a separate press conference, Birdlife official Mark Sultana said this had been meant to be a hunting season when no illegalities could take place, however the first bird was shot immediately the season opened.

He said Birdlife was against spring hunting because it was unsustainable. Opening the season had been an excuse for illegalities to be perpetrated.

Birdlife conservation manager Nicholas Barbara said the number of illegalities had dropped. The biggest number of illegalities consisted of use of electronic decoys and use of shotguns that fired up to five shots. Such illegalities showed the hunters had intended to catch more birds than they were entitled for.

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