The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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What Abela can teach Orban

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 18 February 2024, 08:36 Last update: about 3 months ago

Viktor Orban passed a “sovereignty law” that effectively allows him to access private information of his adversaries.  He’s created a Sovereignty Office, put one of his puppets in charge, and given him the power to obtain information from intelligence services about Orban’s adversaries. That was a step too far for the European Commission that decided to take the first step in legal action against Hungary.


At least Orban went through the trouble of passing a law to allow him to snoop on his critics.  Robert Abela didn’t have to.  He simply called his friendly Tax Commissioner Marvin Gaerty “to report” Bernard Grech’s tax status.

Abela’s suspicious communication with the Tax Commissioner was revealed by the Times of Malta.  Gaerty’s telephone was confiscated by the police as part of their investigation into Gaerty’s other suspicious communication with the man charged in connection with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Gaerty had also taken a trip to Las Vegas with Chris Borg, the man linked closely to Robert Abela through his “small Zabbar plot” and now facing charges of kidnapping and money laundering.  While Borg faced serious tax issues, Gaerty took a holiday with him to Las Vegas, just two months after Borg faced a tax audit into €22 million in claimed losses.

The Times reported that Gaerty’s phone held incriminating evidence that allegedly showed that Prime-minister Abela had communicated with Gaerty in an attempt to gain confidential information about Bernard Grech’s taxes.

Gaerty refused to unlock the phone to give police access to its contents claiming his government phone which he used as tax commissioner contained secrets that he was legally prevented from disclosing.  When the story broke, the Times sent Robert Abela several questions. Abela failed to answer any of them, hoping the story would blow away.  It didn’t.

When Abela turned up to lay flowers at Karin Grech’s memorial, the media ambushed him.  He was forced to admit he’d indeed communicated directly with the Tax Commissioner about Bernard Grech but claimed it wasn’t to get information but to provide it. Abela insisted he was just being a good citizen and doing his duty.  Which common citizen has the Tax Commissioner on speed dial on his phone? And which common citizen enjoys the experience of having their call to the Tax Commissioner immediately answered?

So what did Abela tell the Commissioner? According to a flustered Robert Abela, he called Gaerty to tell him that somebody from within the PN told him that Bernard Grech hadn’t paid his taxes.  So good citizen Abela called Gaerty to do his civic duty of reporting on his political adversaries about their tax situation. Does this man think everybody’s dumb?  Does he realise how ridiculous his story is?

Abela desperately tried to throw reporters of his scent.  “If you want a scoop, I’ll give you one - it was a source within the PN who told me about it,” he bluffed. He accused the press of justifying Grech’s tax irregularities.  That’s not what they were doing.  They were trying to establish whether our prime minister was abusing his power to access privileged information about his adversaries.  They were trying to find out whether Abela was so morally corrupt that he’d demand to see private and privileged information about his critics. They were attempting to determine whether Abela had engaged in criminal activity by abusively accessing private information for his political ends. In short they were establishing whether Abela was even remotely fit to occupy his office.

But Abela feigned surprise at all the interest in his alleged abuse. He pretended not to understand the serious implications of his actions. He attempted to brush off his repugnant and distasteful behaviour.

Abela knew well the implications of his abuse. That’s why he refused to answer questions sent to him by the Times.  He showed the same insolence and secrecy when Standards Commissioner George Hyzler attempted to investigate the case.  Abela refused to reply to any of Hyzler’s questions and instead sent a rude and arrogant letter to the Commissioner. “I note that the leader of the Opposition did not lodge any complaints with you about this.  If Prof Cassola (the complainant) is truly convinced that I committed any breach, it is up to him to identify it and substantiate it”. The bold and underlined “and” is all Abela’s.  Hyzler was compelled to publicly chastise Robert Abela for his impudent arrogance.  It’s not the complainant’s role to provide evidence of wrongdoing but it’s the Commissioner’s role to collect that evidence, the Commissioner rebutted.

Abela’s hostility and aggression don’t stem from the serenity of innocence.

When Hyzler asked police commissioner Angelo Gafa to provide him with information from Gaerty’s phone about Abela’s communication with Gaerty, the Commissioner refused, claiming that only the court or the Attorney General could authorise him to release that information.

When Hyzler asked Gaerty himself to testify, he took his lawyer with him and chose to remain silent claiming that doing otherwise might expose him to criminal action.

So Hyzler had to close his investigation, admitting defeat, due to the police commissioner’s, the tax commissioner’s and the prime minister’s stone-walling. He couldn’t tell whether Abela had abused or not. One thing’s certain - if Abela had the evidence that he was innocent he would have come up with it right away and published his communication with Gaerty.

The European Commission’s swift action against Orban clearly indicates the gravity of a prime-minister abusively accessing citizen’s private information. The Commission provided a long list of EU standards that Orban’s law violates, including “the principle of democracy” and “the right to protection of personal data”.  As Hungary’s civil society organisations pointed out “it’s part of the government’s attempts to silence all critical voices”.   The US state department went one step further: “The Sovereignty Office equips the Hungarian government with draconian tools that can be used to intimidate and punish those with views not shared by his ruling party”.

Orban has so much to learn from Robert Abela.

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