The Malta Independent 22 January 2022, Saturday

The many hats of Giovanni Bonello

Noel Grima Tuesday, 7 December 2021, 09:58 Last update: about 3 months ago

Giovanni Bonello – Bejn Storja u Miti. Edited by Sergio Grech. Publisher: Horizons / 2021. Pages: 250pp

The first time I saw Judge Giovanni Bonello was on New Year's Eve probably in 1984. Together with a group of friends we had gone to a restaurant in the heart of Paceville.

One of my friends pointed him out when he entered, probably recognising him from the only mass meeting he ever addressed, in the Blue Sisters saga, a few days before.

Although at that time I had been a journalist for some 12 years, I had never been sent to cover court so I had not seen Bonello in action. In later years I was to make up for this gap in the many court appearances I had to make. At that time I knew him from his famous Page 13 articles like the rest of Malta. His well-written, sharp, articles were to reach a popularity only surpassed by Daphne Caruana Galizia years later.

This book is the third book to celebrate Bonello's achievements, following Celebratio Amicitiae on his 70th birthday and Awguri Giovanni Bonello in which people he wrote about are imagined to be alive, when he turned 80. This volume in particular forms part of the series Bejn Storja u Miti, edited by Sergio Grech for Horizons, all following the same pattern of articles by various people who know the person in question.

Such have been Bonello's achievements that it must have been easy to find willing contributors. As it is, however, only the first contribution, by the editor of the series, Sergio Grech, covers the more salient phases of Bonello's life and achievements. The rest focus on that aspect they know best.

It is easy to distinguish those who are real friends of the judge from those who are mere acquaintances - the latter refer to him as Giovanni while the former use the more informal Vanni.

His unassuming character may have been the cause of some contributions that verge on the anecdotal. Others offer serious scholarship, such as those by Kevin Aquilina (with 17 pages of bibliography) and Simon Mercieca who gives us a well-researched article on Vincenzo Bonello, the judge's father who was one of the Maltese patriots exiled in Uganda by the British in World War II.

Other articles focus on Bonello's defence of human rights both in Malta and at the European Court of Human Rights, a post to which he was appointed by Labour PM Alfred Sant after he had previously turned down an offer by Nationalist PM Eddie Fenech Adami because of the latter's insistence he keeps both the Strasbourg appointment and the Chief Justice one in Malta. Eddie never forgave this refusal which made him offer the post to Gogo Mifsud Bonnici, brother of a minister and uncle of an MP.

Among these legal points of view I point to that by Tonio Borg, former minister and EU Commissioner, and Lorraine Schembri Orland, Bonello's not immediate successor.

I suppose that at this point, a reader and an observer may be permitted to ask some questions: why did the Page 13 series end when Labour had been defeated and PN swept to power? And why has the judge turned to the dark secrets of the times of the Knights disregarding the times of the British with all the stories of secret mayhem they committed? His own father's saga is ample proof of pure vindictiveness against those whose only fault was their love of Malta's Latin heritage.

Bonello's achievements in the non-legal sphere are many - from getting us to change La Vallette to de Valette, but his forte remains the series of murky episodes from the times of the Knights which otherwise would have never seen the light of day. It has been pointed out that the historian of the Order, Giacomo Bosio, tends to provide detailed information about crimes committed as long as the perpetrators were not knights.

Those were violent times - de Valette himself was twice jailed for acts of violence and Verdalle was charged with violence and also heresy - the only Grand Master to be made a cardinal.

The bishops were not much better - Maltese Baldassare Cagliares had killed a person, Spaniard Tommaso Gargallo was jailed for six months underground when still a priest and later on was jailed in a tower. The pope later ordered him out of Malta.

One direct consequence of Bonello's research was the downgrading of Bishop Caruana from one of the heroes of the insurrection against the French to one who first cosied up to the Order, then sided with the French and then switched to the British and managed to be appointed first rector of the university and then bishop of Malta.

Basing most of his research on the memoirs of a disgruntled priest, Bonello writes how Caruana sent the soldiers to fight the French while he dallied with their wives left at home.

When the article on this matter was published, some direct descendants of the bishop sued for libel. But the court threw out the plea because dead men can't sue.

To end as I began, the first article by the book's editor mentions two episodes where Bonello attracted the attention of the regime's thugs - one when he was eating in a Marsaxlokk restaurant owned by a Labour MP and a thug wanted to wreak violence on the "lawyer of the Blue Sisters" even getting a Kalashnikov to prove his point and how a group of thugs once crowded him in the corridor of the court while wearing an identical T-Shirt with a political slogan on it. 

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