Civil society Repubblika called out Prime Minister Robert Abela for “putting a gun to their head” and accusing them of putting the country at risk by filing two criminal complaints stating that Abela, the Army commander and 11 soldiers were responsible for the death of 12 migrants at sea.
Abela wanted to redirect attention from the migrants’ death in Maltese waters by diverting attention onto Repubblika when it was his decision – and that of Armed Forces – not to rescue them that led to their deaths, the group said in a statement on Friday evening.
Repubblika issued their reaction following a last-minute “press conference” called by Abela and aired on the state broadcaster at 8pm. Journalists were not allowed to ask any questions.
With his Cabinet members seated behind him, Abela lashed out at Repubblika and their lawyer, Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, for filing two separate criminal complaints accusing the 11 crew members of the patrol boat P52, AFM Commander Jeffrey Curmi and the Prime Minister of murder.
This was a result of the government’s decision to close its ports to rescue vessels, the organisation argued. Azzopardi was one of four lawyers who filed the criminal complaints.
Abela accused Repubblika and Azzopardi of jeopardising the country’s efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic especially in light of the work that the army was doing. “In a moment of a public health emergency, the work of 12 officials will be hindered in their work to successfully fight coronavirus.”
Instead of thanking them for their efforts, “these will be sent to jail,” Abela added, repeating the phrase that the organisation and Azzopardi wanted to see them all spending “a lifetime in jail”.
He said it was an attack by those who wanted to damage a country at a difficult time, and strike at a government that was protecting the interests of its citizens. His speech was immediately followed by a flood of Labour supporters on social media calling for “a show of force”.
He said the action by Repubblika would cut down on the government’s already limited resources out at sea at a time when the whole country was working to safeguard the country’s health. “We will not let this stop us – the love we have for our country will not stop us,” Abela said.
His conscience was clear, he added, “because we are doing what is right. That is why I am serene”.
The government, he said, had done all that was possible within the limits of these unprecedented circumstances to save people’s lives. “Nothing will hinder the government’s clear stand on this subject” he insisted, despite appeals for him to reconsider his stance on closed ports.
Over 250 doctors and healthcare workers in the midst of dealing with the pandemice, wrote an open letter to Abela following the migrant deaths, warning him “not to pay for public health with people’s lives”. The number of signatories has increased to 500.
Repubblika expressed surprise at Abela’s statement that there was the possibility he could end up in jail for life “as though Repubblika can send someone to jail”. The country’s institutions had to investigate whether Abela or others were responsible for the deaths at sea.
They insisted Abela was trying to overshadow their criminal complaints by saying they were hindering the country’s efforts against coronavirus. “Abela tonight mobilised all the government for a press conference where no questions were asked to accuse Repubblika of undermining the national effort to overcome the pandemic. He purposely mixed up two things that have nothing to do with each other – COVID-19 and the danger of dying at sea.”
The organisation said Abela’s press conference “was a dangerous act of intentional intimidation to isolate us and further expose us to attacks and threats. The prime minister wants that no one attempts to question whether his decisions led to the death of innocent people”.
Repubblika said it was satisfied that Abela called for an inquiry to establish the facts. “Those who followed Maltese and international laws should not be afraid if Robert Abela believes that justice prevails in Malta.”
Abela and the army could have denied the allegations, that were spread worldwide, that the immigrant boat was sabotaged. This has not yet been denied, Repubblika said. They also called for all the witnesses, who are in the government’s custody, to be safeguarded.
When contacted, Azzopardi said that as a lawyer he could not comment on his professional work, but he referred to Abela’s “attack” as the hallmark of totalitarian regimes.
“Nowhere in the democratic world does a governing party, or worse, the Prime Minister, issue attacks on the lawyer of a client filing action against him or his government. This is only done to intimidate and is the hallmark of totalitarian regimes. In the words of Dante: ‘non ti curar di lor, ma guarda e passa‘.”