The Malta Independent 27 May 2024, Monday
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TMIS Editorial: Abela’s obsession with the judiciary

Sunday, 4 February 2024, 10:00 Last update: about 5 months ago

How does Prime Minister Robert Abela know that the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals deal will be damaging to the Labour Party?

This was the question that Repubblika president Robert Aquilina asked last Monday during a press conference held after a weekend of speculation with regard to the possible candidacy of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for the European Parliament elections.

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As the country brimmed with discussion over the potential comeback of Muscat who, we all remember, was forced to resign in disgrace and in 2019 was named as man of the year for corruption by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Abela was busy having another outburst against the judiciary, while defending Muscat.

“God forbid that I base my decisions on this inquiry,” he said, effectively dumping the magistrate’s investigation and implying that he does not care what the magistrate’s conclusions will say.

He questioned the delay, saying it is not acceptable that an inquiry which had all the support and resources necessary takes more than four years (and counting) when the process should have been concluded within 60 days. He also raised suspicion that the timing of the conclusions is intended to hurt the Labour Party as it prepares to face the EP election.

Again, how does he know that the inquiry will be concluded before the June election? Or is he indirectly pushing for it to be completed after the election?

It is not the first time that Abela put pressure on the judiciary.

In a speech in Parliament last October, on the day that a Court of Appeal confirmed an earlier judgment ordering that three public hospitals which had been passed on to be run by the private sector are returned under the government’s responsibility, Abela had argued that “when a member of the judiciary does not rule in the way (the Opposition) wants”, they are humiliated and intimidated “so that, next time, so as not to be subjected to such vicious criticism, they will judge in their (the Opposition’s and its allies’) favour”.

More recently, he said that the Nationalist Party had resorted to trying to “disassemble the government’s powers to lead the country and, little by little, those powers, through the courts, pass on to the Opposition”. It was another not-so-subtle message that Abela was sending to judges and magistrates that their behaviour was being closely watched.

Another example of when the Prime Minister was using his power to exert pressure on the judiciary was when he wrote to the Chief Justice to complain that another magisterial inquiry, this time into the death of Jean Paul Sofia when a building collapsed in Kordin, was taking too long.

That he had last year also candidly admitted that he had had a conversation with a magistrate on the running of the courts is also an occasion that should not be forgotten. He had also questioned the sentencing policy, asking whether judges and magistrates should be giving punishments closer to the maximum they could inflict, rather than going for more lenient sentences.

Abela knows that judges and magistrates do not answer. When the Association of the Judiciary was asked to react to the Prime Minister’s latest comments, its president, Francesco Depasquale, did not want to comment.

After Abela’s latest assault, the Chamber of Advocates felt duty bound to issue a statement saying that members of the judiciary should not be subject to attacks for political gain. “It is crucial to refrain from using this case (the hospitals’ magisterial inquiry) as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the broader need for procedural reforms, which lie within the purview of that very entity empowered to enact such changes, led by the Prime Minister who is the individual responsible for making such comments,” the chamber said it its statement.

That the judiciary is not resting easy could be seen in the decree that one of them, Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti, issued last Wednesday to confirm his recusal from hearing the case instituted by the Nationalist Party over the State Advocate’s inaction to recoup the money the government paid out across several years to private companies to administer the three hospitals.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Grixti deplored the “rather intimidating” and “ferocious” approach of the State Advocate in his court submission calling for the judge to revoke his recusal. This “unpleasant tone” was “unfortunately embraced” by the government, which is seeking to be a party in the case, the judge said.

The courts of law are one of the last few institutions that still function as they should in this country. Others have failed, some of them miserably.

The judiciary should be allowed to operate freely, without undue pressure, especially from the Prime Minister. He should know better.

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