Series of attacks on judiciary align to sow doubt ahead of inquiry findings

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s criticisms of the judiciary and its work on Friday form part of a series of deliberate and corresponding attacks which span years.

The criticism is seemingly intended to sow seeds of doubt ahead of the potentially disruptive findings of a magisterial inquiry into alleged corruption by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.

An analysis by The Shift shows how Abela’s attacks replicate and align with Muscat’s, implying a coordinated effort to preemptively discredit the magisterial inquiry’s findings, lessening the blow to the Labour Party’s image at a time when the country is heading towards MEP elections.

The repeated and aligned attacks take advantage of the public’s propensity for negativity bias, leaving a lasting impression of ‘non-independent’ or ‘compromised’ judicial structures while the government ostensibly claims the institutions must be allowed to do their job: “Let the institutions work”.

Abela’s latest attack on the inquiry came on Friday, where he criticised “exaggerated” delays, cast doubts over leaks, and defended Muscat.

The criticism came at the apex of a series of attacks by the incumbent government.

The inquiry

The magisterial inquiry was led by Magistrate Gabriella Vella and launched in November 2019. It is investigating the details of the Vitals/Steward Hospitals deal, which saw three public hospitals handed over to the concessionaires in 2015 for their management and revamping.

Following a complete lack of results from the deal, the courts found it “fraudulent” in a February decision.

An appeals court sentence confirmed its illegitimacy in a ruling in October. It noted “collusion between VGH/Steward and top officials of the Maltese government to enter into simulated contracts intended not to provide medical care but for other reasons”.

Following revelations of Muscat’s consultancy with a company closely linked to Vitals, he was investigated as part of the magisterial inquiry under suspicion of being funnelled public funds intended for the hospitals.

Muscat maintains he received the funds as payment for legitimate consultancy work in an unrelated non-descript project which involved meetings with a “sitting Head of Government,” according to a letter sent to newspapers in 2022.

Attacks go back years

In late 2019, coinciding with the start of the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals deal, a public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was also launched.

Magisterial inquiries are held behind closed doors and investigate criminal responsibility, while public inquiries adopt a more open approach and investigate broader systemic failures.

A year later, following a decision by the public inquiry board to extend the length of its investigations, which later held the state responsible, the first of a series of aligned attacks on the Maltese judicial system was launched.

Just a few months after Abela took the helm, an unattributed statement was released by the Department of Information, decrying the independent board’s decision to extend its term to dig deeper.

In February 2022, Muscat’s home was searched as part of the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals deal.

Amid leaks of the search, attacks zeroed on Magistrate Vella as former Labour Party whip and close ally to Joseph Muscat, Glenn Bedingfield characterised it as “persecution” during a parliamentary speech.

Bedingfield went on to cast doubt on other judicial and semi-judicial authorities, such as the Standards Commissioner and the Ombudsman’s office, claiming they were infiltrated by those close to the Nationalist Party in opposition.

In implied agreement, Prime Minister Abela refused to condemn the attack.

His agreement would later be confirmed in a parliamentary outburst a little more than a year later.

2022: Muscat starts his public re-entry

Following the police search of his home, Muscat became more outspoken on social media and with select news sites.

He used the platforms to launch repeated attacks on the judicial process investigating him, calling the police search “theatrics”.

Last May, following renewed scrutiny in joint investigations between The Shift, Times of Malta, and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Muscat called for magistrate Vella to recuse herself from leading the inquiry.

He said the investigations amounted to a “frame-up,” casting further doubt on the inquiry and citing Vella’s family members’ years-old Facebook posts as reasons for her recusal.

Prime Minister Abela at the time did not comment on Muscat’s assertions but accused the opposition of attempting to “condition” the parallel judicial proceedings in the then-ongoing appeal on the Vitals/Steward decision by presenting further evidence in court.

Muscat then launched a constitutional court case in an attempt to remove Vella from her position as the inquiring magistrate. The request was promptly turned down.

When a Court of Appeals sentence confirmed the hospitals deal’s illegitimacy last October, Muscat called for “an unbiased analysis into any potential misconduct,” heavily implying the magisterial inquiry was a “politically motivated witch hunt”.

This time, Abela did not maintain his silence. The pressure had mounted.

Abela pitches in

In a heated parliamentary debate following the sentence, Abela said, “The opposition’s policy is throwing people before the courts. I won’t say it’s because they’re playing home. People can reach their conclusions”.

Abela’s comments align with those of Muscat, lending legitimacy to the former prime minister’s assertions of bias against him in the eyes of the public.

By the end of the year, the government launched a wide reform of the laws governing court action on criminal cases related to the proceeds of crime. The proposals, yet to be passed, were met with differing opinions, with implications they were being fast-tracked ahead of the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry.

In comments to Malta Today, Muscat publicly aligned himself with Abela and Justice Minister Jonathan Attard’s assertions on the reform being overdue. In the same breath, Muscat once again claimed he has “no faith” in the magisterial inquiry investigating him.

Following the launch of a court case by the opposition in response to government “inaction” on the hospitals deal, Abela again undermined the courts’ independence. In comments to the media on 15 January, he said the PN is “trying to run the government as the opposition in the minority”.

Criticisms of judicial processes reach their peak

In recent weeks, Abela has doubled down on his attacks on the judiciary, signalling the imminent arrival of a conclusion to the magisterial inquiry that may be disruptive to the Labour Party.

Amid rumours and furore surrounding Muscat’s ‘return’ to politics, Abela, while welcoming the disgraced former prime minister, cast doubts on the inquiry in an interview on RTK 103, once again undermining the judiciary’s work.

Within a day of its airing, Abela’s latest criticism of the judiciary surrounding the inquiry’s “exaggerated” delays came in an interview with The Times of Malta.

Abela’s latest comments have been widely panned, with the Chamber of Advocates, the Opposition, and NGOs denouncing his stance.

The conclusions of the magisterial inquiry investigating potential money laundering and corruption by Muscat are imminent.

They are expected to arrive among the commotion of Muscat’s potential return to politics, where he has so far been welcomed with open arms by the Labour Party despite the allegations surrounding him.

                           

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carlos
1 month ago

Zewg briganti li qerdu l-Malta. Isthu idru quddiem il-haddiema li sraqtuhom il-vot biex intom issiru miljunarji min fuq darhom u min fuq il- poplu Malti. Morru nhbew.

Victor Formosa
Victor Formosa
1 month ago

In my opinion I think that Abela wants the Magisterial Inquiry to come to an end so once and for all Muscat will be banished from politics. Abela is only pretending that and moaning now because Muscat is threatining Abela’s power in the Labour Party and as a PM.

viv
viv
1 month ago

It is indeed a very rare thing to see a national government consistently peddling limp and soggy conspiracy theories in its own defence.
I’m in awe of The Shift’s expertise in analysing unemotionally and clinically the slugs’ trails of ineptitude and deceit, analyses of which Conan Doyle would tip his hat to.

Thomas
Thomas
1 month ago

‘2022: Muscat starts his public re-entry’.

The Times of Malta has an article today in which Muscat is interviewed on whether he’s contesting the EP election this year. He says that he hasn’t made up his mind yet about that.

Surely, the GC (Gahan Club) will certainly vote for him if he’s on the ballot paper. Just that if he gets elected and takes his seat in the EP, he must be aware of that fact that hardly many people from within the S&D group would like to share his company.

The best quotation from this Times of Malta article and the citation of Muscat’s answer is this:

‘I don’t think the world revolves around Joseph Muscat. I’m amazed at the level of this interest.’

I am rather sure that he knows the reason(s) all himself.

Winston Psaila
Winston Psaila
28 days ago

And still, John Citizen remains totally unfazed by what goes on in this benighted Country; how a band of robbers and criminals ride roughshod over him to the detriment of his children whom he claims he loves; looking like the village idiot happily satisfied with a cup of cappuccino and breathing the foul air surrounding him, instead of taking to the streets to make sure that these robbers and criminals are safely behind bars where they belong.

Thomas
Thomas
28 days ago
Reply to  Winston Psaila

Taking to the streets surely had some effects in the past. The pressure on Muscat to resign, but only to have his obedient servant to follow in his place in order to shield the master from the anger of those who strongly disagree with ‘John Citizen’s’ lethargy.

The monthly virgils to commemorate the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia also had some long term effects. In the end, it always boils down to the one and only measure to be taken by the non-Gahan citizens of Malta which is to vote the PL out of power. That chance passed in March 2022 and I don’t have to list all the reasons for the failure by a part of the electorate in order to vote the PL out of power.

One can take to the streets as often as one likes and as one has seen, the Covid pandemic brought the activities of the civil society movement in Malta to a halt due to the restrictions put in place back then. This has stopped a development which, as I think, would have grown further if it wasn’t for all the restrictions due to the pandemic. Somehow I got the impression that in due course the way the pandemic developed, there were less people inclined to take to the streets afterwards, than during the time from November 2019 to January 2020.

This year there are two elections in Malta. The European elections, which are not quite that significant regarding the rule of the PL over Malta (merely 6 MEP seats for Malta in the EP), but the local council elections where people might have the next opportunity to show the PL their discontent. But because local elections often go as personal elections, if the candidate has performed rather well and can distinct oneself from the upper class PLers in national govt, the temptation to vote for another candidate just in order to punish the PL might be rather low.

I would just mark the date for both elections being held on the same day:

June 8th, 2024.

Well, if Joseph Muscat really gets on the PL ticket as a candidate for the EP elections, one can easily show him what one thinks of him by not voting for him. But that’s how far one can go, the PL in power is to stay until 2027 because they have managed to avoid being ousted from government. The opposition is still not strong enough, rather still split for various reasons. The authorities, with some exceptions, are under the PL’s control and work accordingly. All thanks to the landslide given to the PL in the 2022 GE.

I have said it often before and I say it again, unless there is a strong opposition and that also demands a united one, that grows from the centre of the Maltese themselves, the PL can do as they please and get away with it.

There are more than enough capable people in Malta and they are well known, but partisan infights and rather following the things that divide than those they have in common, always works to the disadvantage of the opposition. I think that the will to vote the PL out of power, come the next GE in 2027, should be strong enough to brigde the gap between the various parties and NGOs in Malta.

Three years to go until the next GE, three years to use wisely and build up a strong opposition that can offer a better future and convince voters to abandon the PL, or three years to go on like in the past and achieve nothing.

It’s all up to the Maltese themselves, nobody else will do for them what they have to do themselves which is voting and in the meantime, convince more people to vote for a change in government.

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