Anthony Grech is a soft-spoken man whose sense of discipline is immediately evident. With 25 years of experience, including missions to war zones, it is clearly painful for him to talk about the disappointment he has faced in the army.
He does not hold back his criticism of political interference in the Armed Forces of Malta, saying promotions were made based on loyalty to the party in government. He tells The Shift that “something is terribly wrong”.
He spills details, unable to comprehend how all avenues for justice and redress fall into a deep dark hole where they are ignored.
The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) and the home affairs ministry have refused to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations from multiple reports, in spite of the fact that the Ombudsman had accepted several complaints and filed subsequent reports in parliament, a veteran of the AFM told The Shift in an interview.
Anthony Grech, a former sergeant-major in the C-Special Duties company and quartermaster for the 1st Regiment of the AFM, had filed a complaint about a promotions exercise carried out by the army. A complaints board had recommended and awarded backdated promotions on an ad-hoc basis in 2014.
While Grech had not applied for promotion through the board, he eventually sought redress with the Ombudsman’s office in 2015 after seeing less qualified peers getting promoted in an irregular, unprecedented fashion.
Grech explained that he went through the chain of command all the way up to the commander, up until the point he was given the option to either go to court or seek redress through the Ombudsman.
“After a lot of correspondence, the Ombudsman presented his final report about my case in 2018. Since then, nothing has changed,” Grech said.
Grech said the two complaints he filed with the Ombudsman, as well as his insistence on not using political connections to his advantage, led to his career grinding to a halt. He firmly believes that the promotions exercise carried out by the army was one that rewarded political connections as opposed to experience or achievement.
“If you start a case with the Ombudsman’s office, you’ve had it. It’s like you’ve killed somebody, in the AFM’s eyes – the army’s top brass takes that very personally,” Grech said.
While, legally speaking, the Ombudsman’s recommendations are not binding, Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi as well as former Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia had altogether refused to accept the Ombudsman’s arguments in Grech’s case.
Curmi was one of the four officers who benefited from an accelerated promotion criticised by the Ombudsman in a report that concluded the 2013 promotions were “outright illegal”. Mark Mallia, who also shot up the ranks at the same time, now heads Identity Malta.
In June 2018, the minister repeated arguments made by Curmi, telling the Ombudsman that Grech’s ineligibility for promotion was largely based on a course he had not attended.
The Ombudsman had highlighted how the course Grech had not attended was approved as a requirement for promotions six months after Grech was already appointed quartermaster. Additionally, Grech’s complaint in 2015 was backdated to 1 October 2009, when the course cited by the minister was not in place.
This meant that the AFM’s insistence on the course policy being applied to Grech’s complaint “seems to be inconsistent” with what the complaints board itself had recommended in at least one other case – it had exempted another promoted individual from sitting for the course on “compassionate grounds”.
In his arguments on Grech’s case, the Ombudsman had stated that the promotions exercise was not in the spirit of the laws that dictate army promotions must be based on the soldier’s “efficiency, seniority, qualifications and selection to fill a vacancy”.
In 2019, the Ombudsman had published a report that described the promotions as a “tailor-made process” meant to achieve “a preordained result”, arguing that it “improperly discriminated against the complainants and indeed against all other eligible candidates in so far as they were not allowed to compete on an equal, level playing field with the chosen candidates”.
The 2019 report added further weight to Grech’s complaints about the way in which the promotions were awarded both before and after he made the decision to go to the Ombudsman’s office in 2015.
A military man
Grech, 53, from Attard, joined the AFM “out of a sense of duty” in 1990, officially retiring in January 2016. Grech confesses he “grew up looking at British soldiers who always used to fascinate” him.
“We were born in the era in which the world was still recovering from the war in Vietnam, the war in the Falklands and other conflicts. At the time, when we were kids, I always sought that sense of belonging in the army. When I’d joined, I’d actually left a job with a much higher remuneration than what I was going to get in the army,” he told The Shift.
“If I had to do it all over again, I certainly would – it wasn’t about the money, for me. I don’t regret it; the feeling I would get from fulfilling a mission while representing the country was one of pride, it always felt good to show up for the country,” he added.
Grech’s extensive experience amounts to 25 years of service including overseas missions in Kosovo, Bulgaria, Greece and Uganda. In spite of his evident pride over his earlier memories, he nonetheless argued that, in recent years, the AFM has gone “from bad to worse”.
“There was an improvement in some aspects like wages, but the overall discipline of the corps has gone downhill rapidly. A few years ago, one of the army’s officials pushed for an ‘open door’ policy, which disrupted every sense of having a chain of command in the army,” Grech stated.
‘Something is terribly wrong’
Grech told The Shift how “irritated” he felt over the issues he’d observed over the years. “I have nothing against the board of injustices because, in my personal opinion, there always were and always will be injustices to be addressed,” he said.
“However, to tell me that in an army of around 1,400 – 1,600 people there were around 700 claims of injustice, a good percentage of which got more than they deserved, implies something is terribly wrong. Some 50% of the army is claiming it suffered an injustice,” he added, describing the system as one that allows “individuals to use political means” to obtain promotions.
Grech was referring to yet another exercise supposedly meant to address pending injustice claims filed by 700 soldiers. Disgraced former prisons director Alex Dalli, who is now being paid €103,000 a year to serve as the government’s envoy in Libya, was the chairperson of the second board meant to address injustices established in 2017.
While Dalli had concluded his report by 2018, The Times of Malta reported last year that nothing had been done to fully address the grievances. A spokesperson for the home affairs ministry was quoted as saying the process was still ongoing.
“This injustices board was created by the minister himself. The first board created so many injustices in 2014 that another one was needed just to keep up,” Grech told The Shift.
“I could have easily uploaded a Facebook post or a comment to criticise the Opposition to show public support for the government before going to the board to ask for a promotion and get it. Presently, in the army, if you challenge the system, you can forget your promotions. In the last nine years, 11 complaints were accepted by the Ombudsman’s office,” he continued.
“The government has not implemented a single one of them, which is incredible, to be honest,” he added.
On politicians and calling in favours
When asked about what he believes is the root of the AFM’s problem, Grech argued that the main issue is “political interference”.
“I’ve seen, with my own eyes, situations in which officers have to outright say no to politicians calling and asking for favours. Some of them were more polite than others and would ask people calling in favours to do so in writing – obviously, nobody would make illegitimate requests in writing, so that’s how they stop them,” Grech claimed.
“In 25 years of service, I did meet these kinds of people, people who did their jobs correctly and were sidelined and shunned. If you speak to them today after what they have experienced and ask them whether they would ever go back, all of them will tell you that they never would,” he added.
Featured photo credit: Justin Gatt | Public Affairs Office