Amid the myriad shock revelations of a government mired in corruption, fraud, theft and murder, public reaction to the regular drip-feed of information about the misconduct of a large number of police officers, including at the very highest levels, has been alarmingly muted.
Corruption fatigue, perhaps, coupled with a sense of helplessness, that it’s all just too much, it’s too pervasive, too widespread. But the case of Elton Taliana, the police inspector who was charged in court this week with “computer misuse,” should act as a timely reminder that the rot still runs very deep indeed.
Taliana says he’s been subjected to a series of malicious acts by his superiors, against whom in July he won a long-running court battle that should have resulted in his promotion to superintendent. However, on the very day his court-ordered promotion should have been awarded, he says, he was instead arrested for allegedly leaking information about a convicted fraudster to criminal lawyers and suspended.
He’s now suing the authorities for damages and claims his arrest to have been a ruse aimed at blocking a drug trafficking investigation potentially involving a politically exposed person.
Taliana pleaded not guilty to the charge of computer misuse. But the case, coming up as it did two days ago, is yet another signal that the problems with Malta’s police force pose a huge threat to the country as a whole. This case, featuring a police officer already proven to have been victimised by his superiors in the past, highlights the fact that the force, despite recent arrests, resignations and dismissals, remains highly suspect, with its glaring shortcomings nowhere near being solved or even close to being adequately tackled.
No modern, democratic State can function successfully without an effective, trusted and trustworthy police force in place. We hear horror stories from Central American and East European countries all the time – tales of corrupt police forces in league with organized crime, targeting innocent people for arrest and protecting hardened criminals, “disappearing” citizens who fall foul of them or their political masters – and we thank God that we don’t live in such dangerous, scary places, where ordinary life is impossible and fear must rule every step taken, every decision made.
And yet, is Malta really any different? The country is learning just how devastating the lack of a strong law enforcement body can be to a nation’s welfare. In the past eight years, we have seen our police force ignore, cover up or bury crucial reports, probes and direct accusations of money laundering, corruption, fraud, forgery and the destruction of crucial evidence, as well as committing the unthinkable crime of conspiring with murderers to hobble their own investigations.
Despite the shamefully tardy arrests and prosecutions now finally being made in the Progress Press case, the continued inaction, delays and outright obstruction in so many other examples, including the Pilatus Bank case, the Panama Papers revelations, the Vitals hospitals contract and the AUM case, means it’s almost guaranteed that most of these crimes will go unpunished. And that’s just the corruption cases that make the headlines; how many other serious criminal cases, such as the drug trafficking probe Taliana refers to, have been hobbled in the same way over the years?
When it was revealed, early last year, that at least 80% of the police in the traffic unit had been involved in a massive overtime racket, literally stealing millions of taxpayer euros, we were actually given a glimpse into how widespread the problems in the police force may be. And it wasn’t “just” a bit of extra overtime; the scandal also involved allegations that officers were extorting “protection money” from construction companies, misappropriating, or stealing, fuel, and using traffic fines to coerce sexual favours from individuals.
The alleged crimes are appalling, outright theft from the public, committing crimes they were duty-bound to prevent, and utterly hideous exploitation of power. But the really terrifying thing is the huge extent of this corrupt cabal. Eighty per cent of the entire traffic unit were allegedly involved in these crimes. Eighty per cent. And yet Malta seemed to carry on as normal.
A few news headlines, a handful of scandalised online posts, and the story fell off the front pages. Perhaps it’s true that there’d been so many, massive scandals in the years since 2013 that this just got lost in the noise, but what it says about the enormity of the problems in the police force, of the very calibre of the people wearing the uniform, is frightening in the extreme.
Indeed, the assassination of Malta’s ground-breaking journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 was only conceivable in the first place because the conspirators, under the patronage and protection of the Labour government in office at the time according to the European Parliament resolution of 28 April, were confident that no serious investigation would ever take place. And, if any potential inquiry or scrutiny did somehow occur, it would come up against a whole series of carefully constructed roadblocks, both within the police force itself and outside it, that would guarantee it never got anywhere, anyway.
Disgraced former police chief Lawrence Cutajar – himself now formally being probed for having allegedly leaked details of the Caruana Galizia murder investigation to the murderers themselves – his likewise disgraced assistant commissioner Silvio Valletta, as well as a host of individual officers who carried out their clearly illegitimate orders, are directly responsible for enabling the government headed by the OCCRP’s most corrupt person of the year, Joseph Muscat, to run riot over the country it was entrusted with protecting, while raping its institutions and stripping them of their integrity and purpose, and pillaging the nation’s hard-earned resources, its laboriously-won potential and, indeed, its very future.
The bent police officers weren’t alone, of course. The scandalous inaction of then-Attorney General Peter Grech on a whole slew of corruption and money laundering related cases gave the criminals in power yet another buffer against potential exposure, as did, with very few exceptions, most of the supposedly regulatory institutions. But the rot within the police force meant, and still does, that the very foundations of law enforcement, and thus every citizen’s wellbeing and security, were, and remain, under threat, crumbling and sinking into a foul, fetid pile of sleaze.
The dictionary defines anarchy as a state without a government, or one with a government that has no power, or one where law enforcement institutions are not able to, or do not, function. People may think that because the buses still run, and the shops are still well-stocked, and there aren’t gun-toting guerillas in the streets, that things can’t really be that bad.
But they’re wrong. This is what Malta has become since Joseph Muscat’s great swindle of 2013. A government peopled by criminals, murderers and enablers, institutions using their powers to facilitate crime instead of guarding against it, police units running corruption and extortion rackets, those few officers brave enough to speak up harassed and penalised, criminal lawyers exchanging cosy messages with police inspectors investigating their own clients, court cases that take decades to reach any conclusion and the highest officials in the land warning murderers they’re about to be raided.
One of the greatest US comedians of all time, George Carlin, once described electricity as “really just organized lightning”. Democratic societies could be described in the same way. The power given to a government, its institutions and its law enforcement officers becomes lethal when it isn’t contained within the strict rules of honesty and integrity that the democratic social contract dictates.
We’d do well to remember that when that power is unleashed without the safety of insulated cables to keep it on track, it can wreak as much havoc and destruction as the most potent of devastating lightning bolts.