The Magisterial Inquiry – Presenting the two sides of the story

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The Magisterial Inquiry – Presenting the two sides of the story

Why was its fairness questioned? Should courts ever be criticized? Should this issue be the main focus of the MEP election? 

Malta’s former prime minister and more individuals will be charged with money laundering, corruption and bribery. The charges relate to a deal to privatise three state hospitals that was negotiated and managed by Muscat’s government. If found guilty, the trio face jail sentences of up to 18 years and fines of up to €2.5 million. 
This comes following a 4-year long investigation. The accused have questioned the fairness of the enquiry throughout. The publication of the magisterial inquiry was the talk of the town during  the first week of the MEP election campaign. But why was its fairness questioned? Should courts ever be criticized? Should this issue be the main focus of the MEP election? 

Who is being charged with what?

Reportedly, 19 people will be charged. From a political perspective, three names stand out:

Joseph Muscat – under his administration,Vitals Global Healthcare were awarded a contract to manage various Maltese hospitals. VGHwas later found to be underqualified for such a significant public health responsibility. Agreements with VGH before the tendering process also indicate misconduct. Muscat faces charges including money laundering, bribery, and forming a criminal association, reflecting prosecutors’ claims that he personally benefited from kickbacks related to the deal. 

Konrad Mizzi was the Minister responsible for the hospital deal, and he was directly involved in the negotiations and signing of the contract. Mizzi faces charges of money laundering, bribery, and forming a criminal association.

Keith Schembri, the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister at the time, is accused of orchestrating and manipulating parts of the agreement that favored VGH at the expense of the government. Schembri faces charges of money laundering and forming a criminal organization.

The investigations into the Vitals deal are not a one-judge show. In a separate case led by a different judge, the court has already annulled the hospitals’ privatisation deal originally signed with Vitals and ordered that the three hospitals are to be returned to the government within three months. During this ruling, the court had described the deal as ‘fraudulent’. The National Audit Office had also suggested improper conduct in the bidding process.

While the scope of that court case was not to criminally charge the individuals involved, it most likely implies at minimum negligence, and potentially deliberate fraud, from both sides of the deal, including the government. The alleged misconduct of the individuals involved is being investigated in the recent magisterial inquiry of Magistrate Gabriella Vella, prompted by a legal request by NGO Repubblika.

What were the reasons that led to doubt in the inquiry’s fairness?

Joseph Muscat asked for the recusal of magistrate Vella

Firstly, Joseph Muscat and others who were investigated are claiming they were not given the opportunity to testify and present their version of events. Secondly, while Magistrate Vella was not accused of making any politically biased social media posts herself, her impartiality is being questioned by Muscat on the grounds that her close relatives shared posts from Repubblika, the NGO that asked for the investigation. 

Republika NGO (which filed the case against Muscat) also asked judges on other cases, such as Magistrate Lia, to be recused, on the basis that her father was a lawyer for Joseph Muscat in the past. In that situation, after losing this appeal in local courts, the NGO opened a case with the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2023, a separate judge, Madame Justice Doreen Clarke, dismissed Muscat’s request to suspend the same magistrate Vella from working on the VGH case inquiry. Although this was in a different (but related) case, the arguments raised by Muscat were very similar, against the same magistrate.

The timing of the inquiry’s conclusion

PM Abela is questioning why the Magistrate took so long to publish her findings and is finding it hard to believe that the publication of the findings exactly at the start of the election campaign is a pure coincidence. A magisterial inquiry is expected to last only 60 days. However, with the AG’s approval, this deadline can be extended. In practice, this 60-day deadline is rarely adhered to. In fact, according to the Times of Malta, around one in five inquiries do take more than 4 years. It is also fair to point out that Magistrate Vella, like other magistrates, has a large number (90) of other pending inquiries. What raises eyebrows therefore is not the fact that it is too long but that it was published in this Goldilocks period

PM Abela is therefore arguing that the timing of publication raises suspicion that it was chosen purposefully to hinder the PL’s election objectives. The PM did not say that this makes the inquiry invalid, but he claimed that it does put into question whether the entire process was fully fair and free of political motivations

Some of the accused were not asked to testify or present their evidence

This case isn’t just about Joseph Muscat, but includes other politicians, businessmen and even public officials. In legal investigations, the magistrate has the choice on who is asked to testify or present evidence. Not calling certain individuals to testify does not necessarily indicate irregularity, but could be a procedural decision by those leading the inquiry although most lawyers agree this is not normal practice.

Constant leaks about the investigation took place

Speculative social media posts by Repubblika activists about the inquiry complicates the justice process. Claims of foreknowledge about the inquiry’s outcomes not only muddle public understanding but further raise unwarranted suspects of interference. This goes against the interest of those who truly want justice to prevail. 

Should a PM criticize courts publicly?

The concept of “separation of powers” divides state responsibilities into 3 distinct branches: parliament, government and courts. Separation of powers limits abuse of power by providing a system of checks and balances where each branch keeps an eye on the rest. In this spirit, the PM’s involvement in the judiciary arm has been reduced significantly in 2020 following several legislative reforms. 

On one hand, a PM’s criticism of the judiciary may potentially undermine judicialindependence, especially if the position or person of the judge is threatened. On the other hand, judges are humans too, and can be subject to bias. We are not implying that any of the above is taking place in the current case. We simply are making the case that in a democracy, we must not be naive, and hold everyone accountable, judges and PMs alike.

How could we have avoided this?

It’s hard to argue that Abela’s concerns about the timing are unfounded, but the counterargument is that delaying the inquiry’s conclusion until after the election would have kept information hidden from the electorate. If possible, the inquiry results should have ideally been published earlier.

From its part, the Government would have avoided this situation altogether had the hospitals’ deal been carried out in a transparent manner in the first place. The timing of the inquiry does not alter its final outcomes. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely that both sides would be satisfied. 

An MEP election is coming up

As always, the main victim is the general public. The focus will inevitably be shifted away from European policies. This inquiry is hijacking public discourse, with little value added as it is unlikely that any actionable conclusions will be taken before election day.

Do you know what the MEP candidates are saying, or even who they are? How will they react and vote on issues that affect us as a nation? As per our advice, always set your own agenda; never let the media decide what you should base your vote on.

Whilst the public may use the vote to show frustration or support over the outcome of the inquiry, or how it was conducted, at the end of the day the election should focus on  who, in our view, will best defend Malta’s interests in the EU. 

The undisputed establishment in this case consists of the larger countries of the European Union who tend to influence their agenda over EU policy over our very own. Let’s base our decision on where we think the European Establishment is trying to push the EU, whether we agree, and who best represents our views on such issues.

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