The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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How it unfolded: 9-hour marathon first sitting of historic case against former PM, others

Albert Galea Tuesday, 28 May 2024, 21:13 Last update: about 25 days ago

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his ex-Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, former Minister Konrad Mizzi and 11 others pleaded not guilty in court on Tuesday as the case against them in connection with the hospitals inquiry kicked off.

The trio were given a heroes’ welcome by throngs of supporters outside the law courts in Valletta as they arrived for the case against them to be heard, starting at 11.30am. Very few waited till the end of the sitting, more than nine hours later.

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The sitting was slow to get going: Magistrate Rachel Montebello got procedural matters out of the way first, before prosecutor Francesco Refalo read out the 25-page charge sheet word-for-word in open court.

It is an unprecedentedly long charge sheet, and it took almost an hour for Refalo to read through it, as the accused, and an army of defence lawyers and journalists watched on in the court room. 

Most conspicuous within the courtroom was a stack of 78 cardboard boxes constituting the evidence in the inquiry.  It was piled in the middle of the courtroom, underneath the magistrate’s bench for all to see.

Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri, Clarence John Conger-Thompson, Christopher Spiteri, Jonathan Vella, David-Joseph Meli, Ivan Vassallo, Mario Victor Gatt, Brian Bondin, Adrian Hillman, Pierre Sladden, Brian Tonna, and Karl Cini were the ones facing charges on Tuesday.

The companies Sciacca Grill Ltd, Kasco Engineering Company Ltd, FSV Ltd, MTrace p.l.c., Gateway Solutions Ltd, Technoline Ltd, Eurybates Ltd, Taomac Ltd, and Nexia BT Ltd were also charged.

They face accusations ranging from bribery, trading in influence, money laundering, and – in some cases – corruption, together with various other crimes.

All of them – the people and the companies – pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, with Muscat, who told the court that he is a self-employed economic and management advisor, particularly pleading “absolutely not guilty” when prompted by the magistrate.

As Refalo concluded his hour-long read of the charge sheet, the interventions from the defence lawyers began.

First, one of Muscat’s team of six lawyers, Vincent Galea, expressed his wish to cross-examine the prosecutor.  He was backed in his request by lawyers Stephen Tonna Lowell, representing Tonna and Cini, Gianella De Marco, representing Meli and Gatt, Stefano Filletti, representing Hillman, and Franco Debono, representing Sciacca Grill Ltd.

Magistrate Montebello rejected the request, which appeared to be related to the asset freezing orders which the prosecution wanted the court to issue against the accused.

These were all substantial in amount.

The arguments continued after the accused read out their not guilty pleas.

The defence lawyers all separately argued along much the same lines: that the Attorney General’s office was bound to specify exactly which evidence pertained to each of the accused and also how that evidence backs up the figures which were reached in the freezing order requests.

Filletti argued that even the inquiring magistrate had concluded that “not one euro” was attributed to his client Adrian Hillman, while lawyer Jason Grima argued that one of his clients – Vella – hadn’t even been mentioned in the inquiry within the context of receiving money.

Refalo, when asked where this evidence was, simply said “this is what it’s based on” and pointed towards the 78 cardboard boxes in the middle of the courtroom.

Tonna Lowell argued that the proces verbal is not evidence and Debono accused the prosecution of being “evasive”, saying “we weren’t born yesterday.”

Nonetheless, Magistrate Rachel Montebello decreed – after an hour of deliberation – that the law does not require the prosecution to specify any type of proof for a freezing order amount to be justified, as that would mean that the courts would be judging the merits of the proof.

All that was required, she said, was for the Attorney General to have reasonable grounds, which it did in the form of the inquiry.

Reacting, Filletti said that the experts in the magisterial inquiry had “usurped” the magistrate and argued that the inquiry and the adjoining 78 boxes were inadmissible as evidence because they are designed for the Attorney General to be able to decide whether to make a case out of it or not, and not to be used “lock, stock and barrel” in court.

Debono made a second request for the prosecution to detail the specific evidence which backs up the amount being requested in the freezing order, while De Marco requested that a distinction is made between individuals and the companies they represent when it comes to the issuing of any freezing orders.

Magistrate Montebello rejected both of these requests.

Subsequently, she accepted the Attorney General’s request for a freezing order against each of the accused.

A freezing order of €30 million was issued for each of Muscat, Mizzi, Schembri, Spiteri, Vella, Hillman, and Sladden, while a €32 million freezing order was issued for Meli and a €20 million freezing order issued for Tonna and Cini.

Vassallo had €11 million frozen, Bondin had €12 million frozen, Gatt had €7 million frozen, and Conger Thompson had €1 million frozen.

Sciaccia Grill, Nexia BT, Kasco Engineering, and FSV Limited all had €20 million frozen, MTrace had €12 million frozen, Gateway Solutions and Technoline both had €5 million frozen, Eurybates had €2 million frozen and Taomac had €62,500 frozen.

The sitting continued with the testimony of various witnesses.

Joseph Caruana from the Tax Department presented a letter wherein the department gave the police dispensation to investigate and charge auditor Chris Spiteri over under-declaring his taxes.

Police Superintendent Rennie Stivala, who assisted inquiring magistrate Gabriella Vella in the first stages of the inquiry, testified about the searches he was a part of and of how over 100 witnesses had testified while he was involved in the case.

He said that Ivan Vassallo had fully cooperated in searches, and even handed over his diaries.

He also said that he had instructions not to do any parallel investigations as the police, but to simply assist the inquiring magistrate in the course of her investigations.

Former police inspector Anthony Scerri, who took over assisting the inquiring magistrate in 2021, also testified about the police’s involvement, detailing how he was part of various searches, including in a garage-like archive belonging to Nexia BT in Qrendi.

Being cross-examined, he said that everybody called to testify before the magistrate was given the right to a lawyer and that he believes that Spiteri was informed about his right not to reply to questions which could incriminate him.  All interviews, he said, were recorded too.

Police involvement, however, he said was minimal and such things were in the hands of the inquiring magistrate.

Facing cross examination from Muscat’s lawyer, Scerri said that he had not come across Joseph Muscat’s name while carrying out keyword searches on documents.

Scerri was also the person who carried out the search at Joseph Muscat’s house. He said that the search had actually been postponed for a day after it was leaked to the media. Scerri doesn’t remember whether the inquiring magistrate had asked about where this leak had come from.

The former police inspector also faced several questions on the foreign experts, with lawyer Edward Gatt suggesting that he planned to question their objectivity later down the line.

As the sitting came to a close, the prosecution requested that the accused should request permission from the courts in order to go abroad, and also sought a ban on any of the accused speaking public about the case.

He likened some of the comments and suggestions being publicly made by the accused as “only good enough for a Netflix series” and as some which do no good for the administration of justice.

It’s a remark which Muscat’s lawyer didn’t like. Galea argued that the Attorney General is breaching his client’s right to freedom of expression. He even implied that the prosecution was following the lead of Jason Azzopardi.

All the other defence lawyers joined the chorus of disapproval against the request.

The court prohibited the accused and their lawyers from making declarations that could prejudice the case.

The court is not banning the accused from travelling, but wants all of them present at each and every sitting.

The court has therefore imposed a personal guarantee of €25,000

The case is adjourned the case to June 13 at 11am, with a second hearing on June 19 at 11am.

For a minute by minute account of all that took place today, click here

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