The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Justice at last

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 15 May 2022, 09:55 Last update: about 2 months ago

In 2013 he stormed to a resounding victory on the promise of stamping out corruption.  In 2017 he was re-elected for a second term. But just a few years after taking office, he was removed after ploughing through one controversy after another - stolen public funds, bribes and corruption. After facing the humiliation of an early morning raid of his private residence by police officers, he walked away in chains. His US visa was revoked on 7 February because of his involvement in corruption. Now he has been extradited to the USA. On 10 May 2022 at a Manhattan arraignment hearing, in a dark blue prison uniform and with chains around his ankles, he pleaded not guilty.

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US Attorney Damian Williams said that he “had partnered with some of the world’s prolific criminals to build a corrupt empire”. He is accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes during his years in office in exchange for protecting criminals from investigation and arrest.  On 21 April 2022, the US Department of Justice issued a statement alleging that he used “his vast political powers to protect and assist criminals alerting them to possible interdictions”.

Prolific traffickers provided him with bribes to support his political career in exchange for protection from prosecution.  He used those bribes to ensure his continued ascendancy in politics, including in the 2013 and 2017 elections.  In both elections he bribed politicians and election officials to ensure victory. The US Justice Department maintained that he “was allegedly paid millions in proceeds which he used to enrich himself, finance his political campaigns and command voter fraud”. The US Attorney for the Southern district of New York said at a news conference that he “was involved in rampant corruption”. The Justice Department suspected him of corruption for the entirety of his time in office. US prosecutors accused him of heading “a state-sponsored conspiracy in which high level police officials directed the state security apparatus to protect criminals”.

Between June and July 2018, 78% of his Facebook post likes came from fake profiles created by the manager of his official Facebook page to artificially boost his apparent popular support. But since losing office more of his corruption was exposed. The authorities seized all of his 33 properties, 8 commercial businesses, 16 vehicles and several financial products.

This is a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who for years seemed impervious to growing allegations of corruption. Despite the mounting evidence against him, he continues to deny all charges claiming he is simply a “victim of revenge” and that charges are politically motivated.  His claims of innocence are difficult to believe considering that his right hand man has been sentenced to life imprisonment in the US for his involvement in a corrupt ring.  Could he have been oblivious to his right hand man’s activities?

Public protests in 2019 against corruption and demands for an end to theft of funds and public money were met with strong police presence. Documents were discovered showing that his party received large amounts of cash from non-existent companies through fraudulent contracts.

His critics celebrated the news of the raid at his home, viewing it as a long overdue step to hold a corrupt leader accountable.   “The authorities are finally doing what they should have done a long time ago - penalise and put behind bars the people who have robbed this country”, said Aaron, a 31-year-old truck driver after the court issued its decision to extradite him.

But not everybody was happy. His supporters gathered outside the court throughout the process protesting his innocence. “I don’t like what they’re doing to him - he was a good leader”, 35-year-old Karen commented.

“Today’s extradition shows that the department of justice will stop at nothing to pursue the most powerful political actors who engage in corruption,” declared a DOJ statement. “This case should send a clear message”, it continued, “to all political leaders around the world who trade on positions of influence that we will stop at nothing to investigate these cases”.

That man is Juan Orlando Hernandez, disgraced former President of Honduras. Yet his story sounds oddly familiar to us all. The election victories of 2013 and 2017 followed by a rapid exit in disgrace. The allegations of his party’s funding through a consultancy agreement with Yorgen Fenech and an obscure company called BED Ltd. The high level police officers like Police commissioner Cutajar and his links with the middleman in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder echo Hernandez’s police protection of criminals.  So does Deputy Commissioner Silvio Valletta’s close friendship with Yorgen Fenech which was kept hidden while he led the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Valletta allegedly called off interrogation of Fenech at his Portomaso offices.  Economic crimes unit head Ian Abdilla failed to investigate allegedly corrupt politicians and ignored damning FIAU reports. Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi have been banned from entering the US because of credible information about their involvement in corruption.

But there is where the similarities end.  Joseph Muscat has not been extradited. His right hand man Keith Schembri is still Kasco CEO. His other right hand man Konrad Mizzi is still free. None of the police leadership has been indicted. Hondurans demonstrated their dissatisfaction and swept their leader out of office with a devastating thrashing at the polls. They were intent on punishing Hernandez and his party for their corruption. The great majority of Hondurans celebrated his defeat with fireworks and street parties. They now welcome his extradition and prosecution. Here Muscat is still feted as a hero, his party still dominant at the polls.

Yet the story of Juan Orlando Hernandez is a message of hope that sometimes justice catches up with those who think themselves immune even in countries where organised crime reaches right up to the highest power. It is a message that those who abuse their office will someday, somewhere, pay for their crimes.

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