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The elephant in the room

Mario Portelli

A video that went viral today on social media showed an alarming number of police officers who turned up at an individual’s home to take him away to a mental institution, snatching his phone from him as he spoke of a disproportionate use of force hours after he had posted another video of him accusing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of lying under oath.

The video showed a number of police officers, some at high rank, who turned up at Mario Portelli’s home after he said that Muscat had lied under oath on the Egrant inquiry. There appeared to be no doctor present when he was taken away by force, according to the footage he had managed to record.

In the original video posted, Portelli said he was set to confront the Prime Minister on Sunday on his “lies” on Egrant. “The police have turned up at my door and they are saying I am crazy. Joseph Muscat is sending the police to take me away to a mental hospital so that I will not be able to expose his lies to the public on Sunday. There is no doctor present here… this is a fascist and dangerous State,” he said.

In his previous video, where he accused the Labour Prime Minister of lying, he also said that he was and always would be a Labour Party supporter, but that the Party did not belong to Muscat.

Concerns on what happened to Portelli go beyond the validity or veracity of what he is saying. The question is whether this was the right course of action, and whether a disproportionate amount of force was used to silence him.

If his accusations had been directed at other individuals and not the Prime Minister, would the police have been so quick to act? Several reports filed to the police on journalists being threatened have never delivered the same result.

If Portelli is sick, should he not have been handled in a different manner that is more in line with treating a patient? There are rules on how to handle these cases for a reason, and it is far from clear that these have been followed.

This is not about what he said, but about the way he was treated as a patient and as a citizen.The police can only take a citizen’s phone away if there is reasonable suspicion of it being used to commit a crime or for having committed a crime or if contains evidence pointing to such a crime, according to criminal lawyers

It is an issue of freedom of expression. Portelli claims to have evidence to back his claims, and yet he is not being given the chance to present it. If false, the evidence can simply be disputed. If those accusations are baseless, then the Prime Minister and anyone else around him have the option to resort to defamation cases.

Those at the highest levels of government have shown their willingness to use these tools – the Prime Minister himself is pursuing a defamation case against journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia 16 months after her assassination under his watch.

The condition he set to withdraw the case was to demand that her family admit she was wrong in her accusation that his wife was the owner of Egrant, a company exposed in the Panama Papers. Muscat has never published the full inquiry he claims exonerates him, despite international calls to do so, including from the European Parliament. He has also refused international demands for an independent public inquiry into her death.

Portelli was the chief witness in the trial against former police inspector-turned-lawyer David Gatt, a close friend of Economy Minister Chris Cardona and the subject of another of Portelli’s videos who he accused of being linked to the journalist’s assassination.

Gatt was accused of being involved in the failed heist of HSBC’s operations centre in Qormi, the theft of more than €1 million from a bank in Balzan in 2007, an attempted robbery of a jewellery shop in Attard and another failed attempt to break into a security van carrying close to €3 million in cash in 2010.

Gatt was cleared of his involvement in the HSBC heists based on the discrediting of Portelli as the main witness, who claimed to have been involved in the attempted robberies, by Gatt’s lawyer Joe Giglio on “mental health grounds”.

It emerged in the compilation of evidence against the three suspects involved in the assassination of Caruana Galizia that Gatt knew them and that he was often seen as what is known at the potato shed in Marsa – their hangout and the place the police knew they would be at when they arrested the three suspected of planting the bomb.

Vince Muscat, one of the three arrested for Caruana Galizia’s assassination, was one of the men arrested in the heist with Gatt.

In January, Portelli had posted a video saying he had evidence of a link between Gatt, the Economy Minister and the assassination of Caruana Galizia. Then, too, he was committed to a mental health hospital in circumstances again where doubts remain on whether proper procedures were followed or whether it was an abuse of power.

In 2014, a year after the Labour Party was elected to power, 59-year old Ignatius Busuttil was arrested and sent to Mount Carmel hospital for protesting in front of the Prime Miniser’s office. In the official statement given to the police and signed by Busuttil, he was asked why he wanted to speak to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and what he intended to say to him.

Two years later the court concluded that his human rights were breached, confirmed on appeal.

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