A young student stood up during a heated political leaders’ debate at the University of Malta and asked the Opposition Leader at the time, Simon Busuttil, about a €10,000 grant to encourage people to move to Gozo.
“Say hi to your dad for me,” was Busuttil’s reply.
The young man holding the microphone was law student Charles Mercieca, the son of Franco Mercieca who was a parliamentary secretary at the time.
This happened in May 2017 in a jam-packed Sir Temi Zammit Hall at the University, when Party leaders Joseph Muscat and Busuttil went head to head in front of a young crowd in a debate before the June general elections.
Mercieca was one of the students ‘selected’ to ask questions during the debate. Busuttil was quick with his political jibe. The crowd went crazy with a mix of jeers and applause.
Mercieca’s father had then called out Busuttil in a Facebook post: “Thank you for your regards. I would have preferred that you replied to the honest question by my son without hesitation”.
Charles Mercieca has since graduated. Now, still in his 20s, he has hit the headlines as the lawyer who resigned from his job at the office of the Attorney General to join the legal team defending Yorgen Fenech – the suspected mastermind behind the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Although little was publicly known about Mercieca, his family – especially his father – have close ties to the Labour administration and top people in government. Mercieca’s father had stepped down from the role of parliamentary secretary in 2014 in order not to give up his role as a consultant ophthalmologist. He is also a close friend of former chief of staff Keith Schembri, having accompanied him for medical tests in London.
The young lawyer was in a long-term relationship with the daughter of Brian Tonna, the owner of Nexia BT, the company that set up offshore companies for the top brass in government revealed in the Panama Papers.
Before he joined the Attorney General’s office at a young age, Mercieca had worked with the firm of former minister Manuel Mallia for almost five years as a legal trainee.
Mercieca is also a lecturer at the University of Malta. Following his shift to Fenech’s defence team, sources said the University was considering whether to have Mercieca removed as he was “not setting the right example”.
When he was 19 years old, Mercieca was involved in a traffic accident that left a driver with slight injuries. When Nationalist owned newspaper Il-Mument reported how he was let off the hook, Mercieca filed a libel case against the newspaper, which he lost.
Is Mercieca’s move a criminal offence?
Chapter 9, Article 122 of the Criminal Code clearly states that any lawyer who acts on behalf of one party and changes over, without the consent of such part or person, to “act on behalf of the opposite party, shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine, and to temporary interdiction from the exercise of his profession for a term from four months to one year.”
Sources who spoke to The Shift said the switch from Attorney General’s office to Fenech’s defence team took place in “less than 24 hours”.
“How is it possible that you switch employer, from the Attorney General’s office to Yorgen Fenech, in a matter of hours without having first made contact?” legal sources said.
The Justice Ministry, while describing the move as “insensitive”, said it was informed that Mercieca had never worked on the Daphne Caruana Galizia case.
The question that comes to mind is why Fenech, who is a millionaire, decided to recruit a young, inexperienced lawyer like Mercieca? Fenech can easily afford to have his pick of Malta’s top lawyers on his team but chooses one who was working for the opposing side.
Reactions to the changeover
The move was criticised by OSCE representative of media freedom Harlem Desir who said the authorities must “ensure that the integrity of the case must be duly preserved and protected in judicial proceedings”.
Surprised that a #Malta prosecutor, who resigned on 5 May, returned to court the next day to represent Yorgen Fenech, a suspect in the murder of #DaphneCaruanaGalizia. Authorities must ensure that the case's integrity is duly preserved and protected in judicial proceedings.
— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) May 7, 2020
Pieter Omtzigt, Special Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said the news was a “disturbing development in the murder case of Daphne Caruana Galizia”.
“The Maltese authorities must immediately ensure that this potential breach of professional ethics cannot violate the integrity of the investigation,” he said in a tweet.
Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi also expressed his disbelief at the news. He said that, with his statement, the Justice Minister was not denying “and cannot deny” that he had access to sensitive files.
“You cannot deny that the contact between this lawyer and Yorgen Fenech took place during the former’s tenure at the AG’s office,” Azzopardi said.
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation said the timing of Mercieca’s transition to a criminal defence lawyer pointed to prior collusion between Fenech’s defence team and a serving criminal prosecutor.