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Melvin Theuma and the State

It is natural to entertain the worst suspicions when the key witness turning in State’s evidence ends up in a pool of blood on his bedroom floor, while ostensibly under police protection.

The wounds could yet turn out fatal; medical experts doubt they could all be self-inflicted, yet the police were quick to say they were. But what if we seek to explain the events using the kindest possible interpretation?

That means dismissing all suspicion of malice from within the police. And then? Our conclusions would still be damning. For what’s left is a police force that lacks any sense of the interests it’s supposed to defend.

Consider the police statement that confirmed that protection within Melvin Theuma’s building was withdrawn in December. We’re told that was at the request of Theuma’s legal defence team. But this explains nothing.

Theuma’s defence team acts on its client’s behalf. The police are under no obligation to accede to it. The police act on behalf of the State — to protect a witness testifying on the State’s behalf.

The legal team’s duty is to protect its client’s interests. The police duty is to protect the interests of justice. Those two sets of interests are not the same. The State’s interests can override those of the witness.

The police still owe us an explanation. Why did they withdraw some of the protection? It was their decision. They can’t pin the blame on the defence team.

If you’re searching for the kindest interpretation, you’ll discard the possibility that the police are trying to hoodwink the public. But you’d have to conclude that the corps does not even have an awareness that the State has an autonomous interest, which the police need to protect.

We have seen the absence of this sense of State before, in two senior policemen’s testimony.

There is, first, Ian Abdilla’s testimony at the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The former head of the Economic Crimes Unit was asked to explain why he did not investigate the suspicions of money laundering by Keith Schembri. He said it was because there were “bigger“ cases.

Bigger than the Panama Papers? The judges were incredulous. Abdilla replied by citing two cases, respectively involving €200 million and €80 million, in which the victims are mainly Italians and Swedes.

These cases were only bigger in terms of financial amounts. In terms of a threat to the Maltese State, there is no doubt that suspicions of money laundering by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff raise the possibility of greater danger.

If you stick to the kindest possible interpretation, you’d have to conclude one of the force’s most senior members had no idea that the first mission of the police is to protect the security and integrity of the State, irrespective of the relative sums involved.

Then there is last week’s testimony, in the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech, by Lawrence Cutajar, the former police commissioner. He recalled how Theuma, on being arrested, requested the services of a series of lawyers — Simon Busuttil, Jason Azzopardi, Beppe Fenech Adami…

“What was certain was that he wanted a Nationalist lawyer!” That off-the-cuff comment by Cutajar may have been the most revealing of the session.

It is the clearest explicit indication we have had that Theuma believed that Labour Party bosses could consider him a threat — enough of a threat to place him in serious danger. Why else would he want a prominent Nationalist lawyer, if not to have someone who could be trusted to resist political pressure? Indeed, someone who could be counted on to reveal it.

Today, Theuma denies direct knowledge of any link between the assassination and Castille. But when he had to safeguard his personal interests, prior to acquiring immunity from prosecution, he considered his best chances to lie with a lawyer who was immune to political pressure.

And yet, the former police commissioner blurted out that this is what Theuma wanted without recognising the significance of what it reveals. Incompetence? Certainly. But also the sign of a policeman who isn’t surprised that the State-as-protector doesn’t figure in the calculations of the State’s star witness.

The ‘kindest interpretation’ ends up being, in its way, the harshest. It’s one thing to be overruled by a corrupt superior, or under resourced, or even under trained. But what we’ve been seeing is a corps whose highest echelons, on the kindest interpretation, seem oblivious to the autonomy of the State and its interests, fail to assess dangers to it, and therefore cannot serve it well.

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