Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti last week issued a blistering rebuke to the Attorney General and the police for needless delays to court procedures in one of Malta’s biggest cases, the 2013 oil scandal.
The case involves several individuals, one pardoned in exchange for information, the rest charged with an array of crimes.
None of these cases have been concluded yet, meaning that none of the accused have so far been convicted. While long delays in all Malta’s courts are shamefully notorious, the foot dragging in the oil scandal case seems unbelievably perverse.
Other, less high-profile prosecutions might see delays as a result of incompetence and inefficiency in the law courts, bungling police officers and the pettifogging of ill-bred lawyers, but the failures to make progress in this particular case raises suspicions of something far more sinister.
The oil scandal itself, which was exposed by Malta Today in January 2013, just before the election that brought the PL to power, is used regularly by Labour Party trolls employing a combination of whataboutism and straw man arguments to deflect accusations that PL ministers are corrupt.
When critics of the PL government ask why none of the ministers and officials caught in corruption, money laundering and tax evasion scams have yet been put in jail, the response is invariably “PN were just as corrupt – why aren’t the people involved in the oil scandal in jail?”
Of course, after the PN lost the 2013 elections it had no power to influence what happened with the oil scandal prosecutions. PL, on the other hand, had every opportunity to push for a fast resolution of the cases. And, given the fact that its supporters use the oil scandal to “prove” the preceding PN administration was also corrupt, one would imagine they’d have every motivation to do so too.
And yet, even with disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s lapdog Peter Grech in office as Attorney General, they still somehow failed to get anywhere.
Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi memorably expressed his frustration over this failure at a meeting of the parliamentary public accounts committee in 2015, when he said, “I am not satisfied about is how things continued after my departure. I am not satisfied with the parliamentary process and I am not satisfied that the investigative team was disbanded.”
The original investigation and subsequent arrests in 2013 were led by then Inspector Angelo Gafa, now police commissioner. In June 2014 and with the probe expanding into a wider circle of alleged accomplices, including the brothers of one of the men involved, Gafa was transferred to the secret service and was replaced by Inspector Jonathan Ferris.
Labour MPs and supporters continue to insist that PN politicians were involved, despite no evidence of anything specific about any particular politician having been reported. Whispered accusations that such and such a minister “must” have been involved and that so-and-so at his ministry “surely” knew about it are meaningless if there’s nothing at all to back up those theories.
The revelations made by Malta Today in 2013 detailed a sordid web of corruption, bribery and money laundering. Those involved include Total agent George Farrugia, who was granted a pardon in return for information about the crime, former Enemalta chairman Tancred Tabone, former Enemalta Petroleum head Alfred Mallia, former Enemalta financial controller and fuel procurement committee member Tarcisio Mifsud, and petrochemist Frank Sammut.
Both political parties have tried to use the shocking affair to implicate and discredit their political opponents, though nothing has been made to stick, and indeed, former finance minister Tonio Fenech lost a libel case over accusations he made involving three directors of an ancillary company to one of the alleged money laundering vehicles and was ordered to pay them €7,500 in damages.
However, the people still facing justice were named and charged. According to former Alternativa Demokratika leader Arnold Cassola, Mifsud and Mallia are long term Labour supporters, while Tabone has been sympathetic to the PN “in the past”. The last few years have taught us a great deal about the malleability of some business people’s political sympathies, but this is a crucial point.
In 2013, the police acted fast on the Malta Today report and went on to make quick arrests, pin down Farrugia’s testimony and begin the process of arraigning them in court. But for some reason, in around 2015 the momentum stalled. Since then, though scores of sittings have been held for each of the separate cases, “nothing happened” in most of them – a shameful fact that the Chief Justice laid squarely at the door of the prosecutors.
This makes no sense if PL is really so convinced the oil scandal can be used to tarnish the PN. The logical extension of that would be to push as hard as they can for convictions – though it’s too late for one of the accused, Mallia, who died in 2019 – in the hope that the much-vaunted “PN minister” or “PN officials” get outed in the court testimony. Think what a triumph that would be for the PL government, to finally be able to brandish about its confirmed allegations about the PN government they unseated.
But even without that kind of breakthrough, getting the men responsible for that shocking scandal behind bars as quickly as possible could only be a positive thing, something they could point to when their critics lambast them for failing to act on corruption. Something they could report proudly to the FATF when they next attempt to wheedle Malta off its grey list.
The fact that this hasn’t happened, and that the Chief Justice himself has laid the blame for the failure firmly at the door of the prosecution, is yet another massive blot in the PL copybook. There’s no excuse for any court case delays, whether due to incompetence, inefficiency, lawyers’ dirty tactics or anything else. But the deceleration in this case is beginning to look like deliberate obstruction.
It’s not the only high profile case being inexplicably held up by the prosecution itself. News reports yesterday cited Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech issuing her own reprimand to the prosecution after they failed to attend a court sitting in the money laundering case against Florinda Sultana and Albert Buttigieg, accused of involvement with the two restaurants – Scoglitti (now renamed Porticello) and Capo Mulini – allegedly used to launder money from oil smuggling.
Those of us on the outside can only judge these deplorable events on the facts made public or exposed by whistleblowers. The convoluted shenanigans in the oil scandal case, the way the PL has tried to hijack the narrative to use as a weapon against the PN, while simultaneously allowing its appointed officials to hinder and impede its progression toward any kind of result, has become a sadly familiar tactic that sets off loud and insistent alarm bells.
As we draw closer to the third general election since the scandal was first exposed, the reasons for the procrastination and endless deferrals in this case must be established and addressed. Until that happens, the criminal gang identified and charged remains unpunished, while the victims of their crime, the people of Malta, are denied justice.
And, maybe more importantly, they remain bereft of the truth, robbed of their right to know exactly what happened and who was involved. As Chief Justice Chetcuti made clear, this creates an intolerable situation, one that must not, for any reason, be allowed to continue.