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‘Impunity in any society erodes the rule of law’ – GRECO Executive Secretary

In an exclusive interview with The Shift, Gianluca Esposito, Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), discusses money laundering, corruption and impunity in Malta.

Gianluca Esposito, the Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO).

Malta needs an overall strategy and coherent risk-based approach when it comes to integrity standards for government officials, the Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) told The Shift.

GRECO laid out 23 recommendations in its report on Malta, and Esposito says they must be implemented by the deadline. When referring to the powers held by the Prime Minister, he stressed that a redistribution of responsibilities was necessary to avoid a risk of paralysis.

He drew attention to recent judgments that called for court-grade proof on requests for a public inquiry, as seen in rulings by Judge Giovanni Grixti on requests for inquiries on the Vitals Global Healthcare deal and the Panama Papers. Esposito said it must be made clear that the launching of an inquiry or investigation can be based on reasonable suspicion; it did not require that evidence is readily submitted to them.

Esposito was also critical of Malta’s system of asset declarations and lack of sanctions for those who break the rules. He insists it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that, in any member state, no one is above the law.

In terms of corruption, what do you feel are the biggest challenges Malta is facing at the moment?

The GRECO report on Malta is clear. Malta clearly lacks an overall strategy and coherent risk-based approach when it comes to integrity standards for government officials. Stricter rules are needed on ancillary activities of top officials including their offshore operations, conflicts of interest, declarations of assets and interests (which should not be limited to Ministers and States secretaries), and the general verification and enforcement regarding such rules. A system of sanctions is also clearly lacking.

What immediate steps should the government take to improve the situation in terms of corruption?

We have 23 recommendations, which I trust the Maltese government will fully implement within the deadline set by GRECO – 30 September 2020. These concern corruption prevention in central government, including the top executive functions, and law enforcement.

The GRECO report notes there was a lack of action against top officials facing corruption allegations – what should be the standard procedure in situations like this?

GRECO report indeed found that the capacity of the criminal justice system to respond to serious allegations is affected by a series of anomalies regarding the distribution of responsibilities between the Attorney General’s Office, the police and inquiring magistrates. A redistribution of responsibilities is necessary to avoid a risk of paralysis.

Do you feel the Maltese government is committed to eradicating corruption within its ranks?

I have no doubt that the Maltese government is committed to fighting corruption. We look forward to the full implementation of our recommendations. It will confirm the authorities’ determination to develop a system that enables corruption in the central government to be prevented, effectively.

The launching of an inquiry or investigation can be based on reasonable suspicion and does not require that evidence is readily submitted to them.

What impact is impunity having on society, based on what was found during visits?

GRECO stressed the need for Malta to increase its capacity to deal with allegations of corruption and other offences involving senior officials. According to GRECO’s report, it would appear that most (if not all) files against persons holding top executive functions and other closely related officials are stuck at an early stage of criminal proceedings. 

This conveys a feeling in the public that senior officials benefit from total impunity for their actions. This is worrying. 

In this regard, GRECO recommended that the criminal investigation and prosecution system in relation to persons entrusted with top executive functions be reformed along the lines identified by the Venice Commission in its assessment from December 2018, giving a central active role to the prosecutors and without retaining the parallel jurisdiction of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption.

GRECO also recommended that it be made clear for criminal investigative bodies that the launching of an inquiry or investigation can be based on reasonable suspicion and does not require that evidence is readily submitted to them. I encourage the Maltese authorities to implement this recommendation in full.

Impunity in any society erodes the rule of law and the trust people have in public institutions. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that, in any member state, no one is above the law.

What are your thoughts on the Panama Papers revelations that senior members of the government had secret accounts? What are your thoughts on them still being in office?

I am not in a position to comment on specific, individual cases. However, I can say that the Panama Papers are referred to, among others, in our report.

No one is above the law

The Venice Commission expressed concern about judicial appointments being controlled by the government. This has not changed, and the Prime Minister has appointed more judges. Does this worry you?

Let me stress that, already in 2014, in its 4th evaluation round report, GRECO expressed concerns about the potential for appointments to be made, or to be perceived as having been made, for reasons of influence rather than suitability for judicial appointment. GRECO recommended that formalised, objective criteria and evaluation procedures be introduced for judicial appointments with guarantees of due independence, impartiality and transparency. At this stage, I can only call for the full implementation of the Venice Commission opinion in this regard.

What is your outlook for Malta in terms of corruption and money laundering over the next 12 months? Do you think things will improve?

GRECO and Moneyval have issued very clear, substantial and technical reports and recommendations concerning ways to strengthen the fight against corruption, money laundering and terrorism financing in Malta. These reports are issued against agreed international standards. GRECO and Moneyval recommendations should be fully implemented.

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