The Malta Independent 8 March 2021, Monday

TMID Editorial: Pardon request - Recusal and conflict of interest

Monday, 18 January 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Conflict of interest, along with clientelism, is one of the main problems in Maltese politics.

It is an issue that crops up almost on a daily basis, mainly due to the small size of the country and the fact that ‘everyone knows everyone’ in this country.

One of the latest cases of conflict of interest arose last week, when Prime Minister Robert Abela, as head of the government, led a Cabinet meeting that decided on a pardon request by one of the three men accused of killing Daphne Caruana Galizia.

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The problem here was that Abela was was formerly a lawyer for the Agius brothers, who were referred to by their family nickname in court as the suppliers of the bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia.

This is a problem that keeps recurring due to the fact that many of our current politicians are lawyers. Some of them worked in the criminal courts, which means that, at some point, they had represented people that were accused and convicted of crimes, or who are well-known in criminal circles. Former Labour Deputy Leader Chris Cardona, for example, had the same problem.

Abela was criticised for not recusing himself when Cabinet decided on Muscat’s pardon request, and this criticism was mostly justified. The PM did not agree. He told journalists last week that there were “absolutely no grounds” for his recusal but failed to explain further.

Abela insisted that he had acted in line with the advice given by the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Police, and that he had a clean conscience after taking the “right” decision.

Now it could well be that the decision was the right one. But the fact remains that, on such sensitive decisions, conflicts of interest must be avoided at all cost.

We all remember the furore that ensued when former PM Joseph Muscat chaired the Cabinet meeting during which Yorgen Fenech’s first pardon request was denied. It had been argued then, that Muscat should not have been involved in the decision to grant a pardon to someone who was offering to spill the beans on some of his closest associates.

When Fenech made a second request for a pardon in November, Muscat had left the decision up to his ministers, even if the decision taken (another refusal) raised eyebrows since Fenech allegedly had dirt on Keith Schembri and the government seemed to be protecting its own.

Since we were not privy to the details, and do not know what reasoning led the AG and the Police chief to recommend a refusal, we cannot really comment on the Cabinet’s decision. We have to trust that the decision taken was the right one and that granting a pardon to Muscat would not have been beneficial. Perhaps the information he holds is already known to the investigators.

But the issue here is that politicians should, when possible, abstain from taking decisions about persons with whom they share a link, whether familiars or professional.

Abela could have easily recused himself and let the Cabinet follow the advice of the Attorney General and Police Commissioner.

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