The Malta Independent 4 October 2022, Tuesday
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Repubblika takes Magistrate Nadine Lia’s recusal refusal to constitutional court

Monday, 12 September 2022, 10:33 Last update: about 22 days ago

Repubblika on Monday morning filed constitutional proceedings against Magistrate Nadine Lia over her refusal to recuse herself from the NGO’s challenge case against the police.

The rule of law NGO is requesting the court to force the Police Commissioner to prosecute several individuals who were singled out by the Pilatus Bank, but is arguing that the magistrate’s refusal to recuse herself constitutes a breach of its right to a fair hearing before an impartial tribunal.

This was said in an application filed by Repubblika’s lawyer Jason Azzopardi before the First Hall of the Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction on Monday morning.

In the application, the organisation argues that an article of the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure which grants the magistrate presiding the challenge proceedings the sole discretion, immune to any legal challenge, is unconstitutional.

Repubblika filed its challenge against the Police Commissioner in June 2021, arguing that the Pilatus inquiry – which it has in its possession – had ordered the police to press money laundering and criminal conspiracy charges against several people including “close friends of ex-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his ex-Chief of Staff Keith Schembri”, and adding that it had found additional grounds for charges of trading in influence against Schembri.

The case was to be heard by Magistrate Nadine Lia, but the NGO immediately argued for her recusal on the basis that she is married to the son of Joseph Muscat’s lawyer Pawlu Lia.

Earlier this month, Lia rejected the request for her recusal and also refused to allow her father-in-law to be summoned to testify.

Repubblika argued last week that the Pilatus Bank inquiry had ordered the Attorney General to reopen the Egrant inquiry – which looked into whether the Panama company was owned by the Muscat family – because a forensics report focusing on a secret accounting system at Pilatus which could have hidden a $1 million payment from Azerbaijan through Egrant was overlooked.

The NGO also accused Lia of consulting with her father-in-law about an incident where he accosted Repubblika President Robert Aquilina outside of the law courts, and blasted him for bringing up his family ties in the case.  In her ruling, the magistrate notched this down to being a “spontaneous incident”, despite having heard either party testify.

Pawlu Lia has also represented Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in the past, and the NGO argued that it was a “well-known fact” that Chinese businessman Chen Cheng - who had been the primary negotiator in the deal which saw Shanghai Electric purchase of a stake in Enemalta and the exposed owner of another secret company called Macbridge – had set up a secret company to bribe both Mizzi and Schembri.

Cheng Chen had also been found to have held an account at Pilatus Bank. 

“So the man alleged to have bribed the clients of Magistrate Nadine Lia’s father-in-law, held an account in the bank which is the subject of the challenge proceedings filed by Repubblika,” the NGO wrote in its application.

It continued by arguing that as one of the lawyer’s heirs, the magistrate also had a financial interest in Pawlu Lia’s earnings, making it a financial partnership between them and therefore “a blatant and obstinate conflict of interest.”

The NGO also noted how Magistrate Lia had participated in the Labour Party’s electoral campaign in 2017 when she was still a lawyer, and had been engaged as the special legal consultant of another controversial former minister – Chris Cardona – on a salary of just over 60,000 per year.

Repubblika even quoted part of a speech which Lia gave at a Labour Party electoral campaign rally: “Yes… So what? Without mistakes you don’t get anywhere! Everyone makes mistakes…the point is not whether there was a mistake, but that we got here! If a mistake happened, it was part of the process!” Lia is quoted as saying about the scandals – relating to Pilatus Bank and Egrant – which had begun to rock the Muscat administration at the time.

The NGO argued that the magistrate had shown an “abnormal, strange and dangerous eagerness” in her decision to deny the requests for her recusal and accused her of “wanting to deliberately hide and help the forgetting that which Repubblika had revealed under oath.”

In its application, Repubblika called on the court to urgently declare that the refusals breached their constitutional right to a fair hearing and to order that the law giving the final word on recusals to the magistrate whose recusal is being requested breaches the European Convention of Human Rights.

It also requested that the court orders the case to be decided before the start of the NGO’s challenge proceedings on 27 October and to issue an urgent interim order to stop Magistrate Lia from holding sittings or giving orders in connection with the proceedings.

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