How do you break a circle of criminality, especially if you’re prime minister? That’s the pickled onion gifted us by Robert Abela this week, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s for us to appreciate its many layers.
The prime minister declared, “I’m proud to have broken this circle of criminality”, while standing by the minister, Carmelo Abela, accused of being an inside man in a bank heist (the accusers themselves are charged with grave crimes and one has confessed to involvement in two murders).
But this column isn’t about the accused minister. It’s about how, once more, the prime minister declared something that looks plain and principled, intended to quash all discussion, while in fact raising a series of questions about his own behaviour.
Robert Abela wants us to know that he doesn’t give cover to criminals. He stands up to them. He doesn’t collude. He keeps them at a safe distance. He comes down on them hard.
He’s no-nonsense. But it’s hard to make sense of what he’s said.
First, he says he’s broken a criminal circle. That would be easy to understand if he were commissioner of police. But a prime minister can’t instruct the police.
Was Abela letting slip that, without his go-ahead, the steps to “break the circle” would not have been taken? Presumably not — for that would be a serious indictment of his government rather than something to be proud of.
Politicians can support the police in their work — by giving them the resources they need, passing special laws, and adopting particular policies on law and order. But no special laws to address organised crime have been passed during Abela’s premiership.
There have been no new policies, apart from assurances that Abela’s government would be tough on crime. There have been claims that the police force is being beefed up, especially in relation to financial crime.
So questions arise naturally. Is Abela saying that, under his predecessor, Joseph Muscat, the police were starved of the resources they needed? If Abela is proud of his role in allocating such resources, the prior deprivation must have been serious indeed — culpable, in fact.
Second, there’s the membership of this criminal circle. Abela is taking credit for breaking it up while referring to two men who were arrested two years before he became prime minister. He’s either taking credit for something he didn’t do or else he’s including people who have been arrested since.
These include two previous clients of his, the brothers “Maksar”. If he’s declaring proudly that he’s courageously stood up to them while in politics, he’s also saying his guts were on standby when he earned fees off them, before politics. What did he know about them then?
They are still only charged with murder, innocent until proven guilty. A prime minister who alludes to a circle of criminality, in a way that lets the public mind’s wander over to the clamorous arrests on his watch, is leading the public to think he considers the arrested to be guilty.
Doesn’t this risk prejudicing the court proceedings? Of all people, Abela should know this well. It was his own legal firm (under his father) who raised the matter when it led the legal defence of a bent Chief Justice (in connection with Eddie Fenech Adami’s 2002 press conference).
If words mean anything, a “circle” is made up of more than two or three people. There have been other dramatic arrests under Abela — the cluster of arrests to do with money laundering. They include Keith Schembri and the top personnel of Nexia BT.
Once more, they’re denying all charges and are still innocent until proven guilty. But the prime minister’s words throw a shadow over them all. The way he claims credit for breaking up a mysterious circle, without naming the members, makes us scrutinise everyone who’s been arrested over the past year. It’s unjust on those who Abela does not have in mind.
I repeat: a prime minister cannot claim credit for smashing a criminal circle unless political will was involved. He either defied political pressure or removed political protection or substituted diligence for negligence.
If the prime minister is intent on taking credit for doing one or more of these things, he needs to say which it is. And he needs to accept that he cannot take special political credit for smashing without damning those who came immediately before him. You can break a circle but you cannot square it.