The Council of Europe’s rapporteur on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the rule of law in Malta, Pieter Omtzigt, has castigated Prime Minister Robert Abela for his approach to the terms of reference of the Daphne inquiry, insisting that the PM had no right to determine when the inquiry board should bring its work to a close.
“Less than a year after your predecessor belatedly agreed to establish the ‘independent public inquiry’, you and other leading members of the governing party seem to be engaged in a concerted attack on its credibility and integrity. This gives the impression that the government has something to hide and is willing to tolerate, condone and even defend impunity,” Omtzigt charged in the concluding remarks of a scathing letter sent to Abela on Friday.
“This risks reversing any recent progress in enhancing respect for the rule of law, which would be a dramatic setback to the rehabilitation of Malta’s international reputation. I would therefore respectfully request that you withdraw your purported limitation on the time frame for the inquiry’s work, refrain from any future adverse comment on the inquiry, and ensure that other Labour Party politicians also refrain from any such comment.”
PM has no right to set deadline
Abela determined that he would grant the inquiry a “one-time extension,” insisting that it should conclude its work by December. But the decision met with strong objections from the Caruana Galizia family and civil society, and Omtzigt has firmly aligned himself with the objectors.
He highlighted that according to its terms of reference, the inquiry “shall endeavour to conclude its work within a time frame of nine months without prejudice to the proper fulfilment of these terms.” Abela, he charged, selectively misquoted the terms to claim that the time limit was fixed.
But in any case, the Dutch MP maintained, “it cannot be for the Maltese government to decide, after the inquiry has begun, that it should cease its work before the board itself determines that the terms of reference are properly fulfilled.”
“In effect, you are saying that once nine months have passed, the subject of the inquiry can unilaterally decide when it will end. Such a power could be used to prevent the inquiry from hearing evidence that the government does not wish it to hear. This is a violation of the inquiry’s independence, beyond any shadow of a doubt,” he added.
‘Blatant political interference’
Omtzigt noted that he had already asked Abela to clarify the legal basis for his decision earlier this month, only for the PM to fail to do so.
“I therefore cannot accept that your letter to the board of inquiry was ‘intended to safeguard the proper observance of the law.’ There is no legal requirement for the inquiry to finish within nine months, nor any legal basis for the government subsequently to impose some other time limit. In any case, it would not be up to a prime minister whose government is under inquiry to enforce the law applicable to that inquiry. This would violate the principle of separation of powers that is fundamental to the rule of law,” he maintained.
The Dutch MP also noted that there was no indication of undue delay, as the inquiry proceeded with remarkable efficiency in spite of the Covid-19 crisis. He also highlighted that proceedings on related matters – whether conducted by the courts, inquiring magistrates, the Attorney General, or the police – were taking far longer.
He thus expressed “extreme concern,” at Abela’s expressed reservations about the way in which the inquiry is failing to keep to the terms of reference given to it.
“The prime minister of a government that is subject to inquiry should not seek either to determine the scope of that inquiry, or to question its propriety. This is a blatant political interference with its work,” Omtzigt maintained.
He also reserved criticism for government whip Glenn Bedingfield, who insisted that the inquiry had become a political exercise. He reminded that Bedingfield played a prominent role in “orchestrating public hostility” against Caruana Galizia and her family, and that his remarks represented yet another instance of political interference.
New AG’s refusal to publish magisterial inquiry criticised
The Dutch MP was critical of new Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg’s decision not to publish the report of a magisterial inquiry into kickbacks on the selling of passports, in which Keith Schembri and Brian Tonna are reportedly involved.
He noted that there was recent precedent to the contrary in similar cases, and highlighted that the inquiry was important as a means of “casting public light on a dark period in Malta’s recent history.”