Should suspected criminals, arrested and charged in court, be allowed to continue to mingle with the rest of society, permitted to continue at least a portion of their normal lives, meeting friends and colleagues, going about their day-to-day business and communicating with whomever they please?
This isn’t a new question, though it’s a controversial one. Granting bail to accused but not-yet convicted prisoners is considered a fundamental human right and covered under Article 5, the right to liberty and security, of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Over the past week, Keith Schembri, Brian Tonna, Karl Cini and the rest of the gang of 11 arrested and held in police custody on various charges including corruption, money laundering, criminal conspiracy, fraud and forgery, were all granted bail and allowed to leave prison pending their criminal cases coming before the courts.
The decision to grant them bail provoked muted outrage in a few members of the general public, though this was fast shut down by others citing human rights rules. But those rules are not blanket guarantees of freedom from arrest before conviction. They are conditional on specific situations.
Two of these conditions are the “reasonable” suspicion that the accused may commit an offence and/or that he/she may flee after having done so.
When a person has been arrested for crimes that include criminal conspiracy, and his/her alleged co-conspirators are all granted bail too, allowing them to return to their homes, offices or other locations, and in an era when electronic communication with anyone, anywhere in the world, wouldn’t it be “reasonable” to suspect that they may be tempted to contact each other, and others, in order to conceal or destroy any further evidence, or in order to set up plans to leave the country and escape having to face justice?
Looking at just one of the cases Schembri has been accused of being involved in – The Allied Newspapers case, his company Kasco Ltd allegedly overcharged the company for a printing press by $6.5 million and then laundered $5 million to provide kickbacks to two Allied directors, Adrian Hillman and Vince Buhagiar, and to Kasco CEO Malcolm Scerri and himself.
Adrian Hillman, whose involvement in this criminal deal was first exposed by assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as far back as 2016, is apparently, and conveniently for him, in London studying for a PhD. Was Hillman’s decision to take his family abroad a coincidence or had he seen, or been shown, the writing on the wall?
When Yorgen Fenech, accused mastermind of the plot to assassinate Caruana Galizia, was caught by the Malta police, he was on his yacht attempting to leave the country. His phone records showed that he’d spent 24 minutes talking to Keith Schembri just hours before his arrest.
Recent revelations have exposed the long-concealed owner of Macbridge, one of the companies alleged to have been set up to channel kickbacks to Keith Schembri and former minister Konrad Mizzi, as Cheng Chen, a consultant on the Shanghai Electric investment in Enemalta.
Schembri has been implicated in a host of crimes he has not yet been charged with. Despite having been questioned by the police multiple times, despite the tsunami of evidence backing up these implications and leaked to the press, he has so far avoided formal charges in these cases.
The former police chief’s incredible, shameful inaction and potentially criminal behaviour, as well as his cronies’, can be blamed for much of this, as can the former Attorney General’s, but now that the police have finally acted on the evidence, have they (and we) been let down by the court’s decision to grant provisional freedom to Schembri and his cohorts?
One doesn’t need to be a legal expert or a crack detective to feel alarmed at the fact that Schembri, and his alleged co-conspirators, have been released on bail. Indeed, with allegations of involvement in a brutal assassination as well as a host of corruption and money laundering issues separate to the Allied Newspapers case, it appears perverse in the extreme that Schembri has not only been allowed to return to his home, but he has also been given the freedom to be out and about during the day.
This means that no matter how closely the police survey his actions, his communications and his meetings, they won’t be able to stop him from continuing to cover up evidence related to any of his alleged crimes.
No matter how closely they monitor his own computers, they won’t be able to stop him using other people’s electronic devices to manage and rearrange hidden finances, prepare an escape plan or blackmail and threaten others to help him cover up alleged crimes that might otherwise be exposed.
While the courts may justify granting bail as being based only on the charges brought, and not taking into account any other alleged crimes, this was a dangerous decision that we could all live to regret.
Top officials, lawmakers and police officers have either been implicated in the suspected crimes or in their cover-up, making it clear that the criminal elements in the Labour Party government had put in place layers upon layers of protection for themselves.
Quite apart from the complex, international financial structuring to conceal and launder the ill-gotten gains of their crimes, they sought to ensure they were never made to face justice by neutralising each and every potential threat to themselves.
The historic events of December 2019, resulting in the resignations that changed everything – Schembri himself, Konrad Mizzi, Joseph Muscat, Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and Attorney General Peter Grech – ripped away several of those protective layers.
But the reality is that we don’t know how many other layers still exist. The huge scale and sophistication of the crimes committed against the entire nation suggest there may be other defences in place that haven’t yet been detected.
They suggest the likelihood that most of the 11, and especially Keith Schembri himself, will have had both the time and the resources to prepare at least one, if not more, contingency plans.
Letting these particular birds go at this particular time may prove to be yet another disastrous decision by Malta’s already severely compromised law enforcement and justice systems.