Brutality beyond the law

Bernice Cassar was shot to death by her husband on Tuesday. The 40-year-old mother of two was on her way to work.

She had filed domestic violence reports with the police, had secured a restraining order against the man, and was apparently begging for protection the day before she was killed. The system clearly failed her, but the culture she lived in failed her, too.

It’s an undeniable fact that domestic abuse exists in every country, but the incidents that happened during my six years in Malta were shocking both for their barbarity and for the way they were ignored or excused.

I’d only been living in the country a few months when I saw a story about a 35-year-old Ukrainian woman who fell down the shaft of a lift while trying to escape her husband, who was beating her. He either pushed her down the shaft or saw her fall, but the impact didn’t kill her. It took Liudmyla Nykytiuk several hours to die.

In a country where walls act as amplifiers rather than soundproofing, how many neighbours heard her screams and did nothing?

Another domestic violence story I’ve never been able to forget was that of a Maltese man in Liverpool who was jailed for setting his ex-wife’s home on fire.

The prosecutor in the case presented as evidence a series of SMS messages from the man’s phone. “If God gave me a wish, I would ask him to get rid of you by burning you while you were alive,” one said. Another read, “I wish I can end your f***** life and good riddance to you. Now I know when people talk about despicable b*****s you are one of them.”

“I pray to God that you get run over or squashed up in a traffic accident,” another said, and, “You know what I will give out a party for at least 10 to 14 days to celebrate your passing away or your disability to all the people in the street.”

The man admitted to sending the messages but said that in Malta, “such threats were not treated as seriously as they are here”.

He collapsed in the dock and had to be helped by medics when the judge sentenced him to prison. Would he have walked off with a slap on the wrist had the incident occurred in Malta rather than England?

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the severity of violence in Malta ranks as one of the worst in the European Union. The most recent data collected by the organisation was published in 2018, just before the coronavirus pandemic, when Malta had the third-highest rate of female victims of homicide in the EU.

When it comes to women being killed by family members and relatives, Malta was second-highest. But when it comes to intentional homicide by intimate partners, Malta was number one.

Of all the female victims of homicide in Malta between 2014 and 2018, 60% were murdered by their intimate partner, and the brutality of these murders is shocking.

Chantelle Chetcuti, a 34-year-old mother of two, was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend outside a football club in Żabbar. She was found face-down on the pavement, shaking spasmodically, with the knife’s handle sticking out of her head. She had filed a domestic violence case against the man several years earlier, but it was dropped when she chose not to testify.

Thirty-year-old Shannon Mak was beaten and kicked by her ex-boyfriend before having her throat slashed outside an apartment in Santa Venera. A witness described hearing shouts and screams that were replaced by “a gurgling sound” as she bled to death in the street.

Marie Louise Agius, 35, was strangled to death with a crucifix by her former partner, a man she had filed multiple domestic violence reports against with police.

One woman managed to survive her ordeal despite the odds. Nathalie Williams was dragged from her home by her ex-husband one November and forced to jump into the frigid sea before he dumped her in a cave near Fort Ricasoli and left her for dead. She was only found by chance days later.

Williams had filed numerous domestic violence reports against the man over the years, including one that resulted in his conviction for causing her serious injuries. When this latest case came to court, the accused was released on bail.

A 2017 study by Clarissa Sammut Scerri, a Senior Lecturer within the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of Malta, found that more than 26% of women surveyed experienced emotional or violent abuse from their former or current partners, and more than 23% experienced such abuse before they turned 15.

Why is violence of such brutality so prevalent on such a small island?

Jealous former partners aren’t the only culprits. Murders of women by close family members are also common — and shockingly violent.

In one particularly brutal case, Joseph Bonnici of Għaxaq shot his mother and sister, smashed their heads with a mallet, and then buried them in a field before calmly returning to bed.

In another incident halfway across the island, Kevin Micallef stabbed his mother Antonia Micallef and his aunt Maria Carmela Fenech to death in their home in Għargħur.

The population of Malta is roughly the same as that of a medium-sized European city like Lyon or Antwerp. Had this many women been brutally murdered by their partners or family members in either one of them, those cities would be seen as bastions of barbarity, places where something had clearly gone off the rails.

So what is going on in Malta?

A 2016 Eurobarometer survey on violence against women gives some indication.

It found that 47% of respondents in Malta believe women often make up or exaggerate abuse or rape allegations (as compared to an EU average of 22%).

At 40%, Malta also topped the list of those who agree violence against women is often provoked by the victim, putting it behind only Latvia (57%) and Lithuania (45%).

The survey also found that people in Malta (57%) were least likely to speak out about it if they knew someone was a victim.

These are cultural issues. All the temporary hand-wringing in the world won’t change it. Nor will a dozen paper laws that make Malta look good in theory but which are never enforced in practice due to lack of resources, training or will.

How can paper laws fix anything when some of the people tasked with enforcing them can’t even keep their own hands clean?

You’ll recall that assistant police commissioner Mario Tonna was forced to resign in January 2018 after allegedly head-butting his wife in a drunken argument. He was acquitted of domestic abuse when the main witness refused to testify.

Then Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia defended him, calling Tonna a “hard-working officer who worked long hours”.

Women won’t stop being murdered by their controlling, abusive ex-partners until Malta stops producing weak, self-important bullies who justify their threats and violence with demands to be shown the respect they don’t deserve and praise they haven’t earned.

The problem of deeply ingrained misogyny runs much deeper than the legal system or under-resourced institutions.

‘Who will answer for these femicides?’ is the call of a protest organised by Moviment Graffitti and Integra that will be held outside the police headquarters in Floriana today at 6pm.


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4 days ago

In brief, Malta is filled with barbarians. Mostly male barbarians.

4 days ago

Good article Ryan, however since you left this Mafia stronghold, things have gotten worse, ignore the headline propaganda, there is absolutely no law or justice now on the rock, see all the latest here, pretty much up to speed with the REAL news. You can do just about anything you like these days, park where you want to or what you feel like, (a bit like Tripoli), batter someone brainless no one cares, steal millions and get government assistance with your legal team if you get caught, buy a judge, as easy as shopping in Lidl, steal public land and flog it to the highest bidder, don’t forget the ministers bung, threaten, beat, murder any female who upsets you, the fallout is gone before she’s in her grave. Yes the Mafia have and are busy fucking all the systems and the people who run them, criminality is a way of life and is no longer an exception, “scandal” is the norm every single day. Don’t come back unless you want a overpriced holiday from hell. Merry Xmas BTW.

4 days ago

To break the vicious circle of violence, women must become aware of their own misogyny. Misogynistic women beget misogynistic sons as the former is often in awe of her male offspring.

Conversely, strong ‘feminist’ mothers breed well behaved sons who treat their mothers with respect and this pattern often extends to respecting other women.
Sadly, the overbearing subliminal influence of the RC church consciously/unconsciously spewing sexist diktats is still very deeply rooted despite an increasingly secular society.

1 hour ago

2012: Meryem Bugeja (Moroccan), pregnant with twins, found dead from blows to the head at her home in Mgarr. History of domestic violence, but husband released through lack of evidence

we heard nothing more. Her murderer got away scot free!

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