Updated with a response from the President of Malta Marie Louise Coleiro Preca
Mrs. President, if there ever was a time for you to help out a vulnerable Maltese person, it is now.
Christopher Bartolo is a father of two who suffers from failing kidneys and is languishing in prison as you read this. He has said that he used cannabis to self-medicate, with the plant easing his pain and allowing him to sleep more effectively than the 21 pills prescribed to him for his illness.
He had never used drugs before he fell ill, yet when police found out that he was using cannabis to self-medicate, they interrogated Christopher and got him to admit to having trafficked 1.5kg of cannabis, even though he only had 167g, and that admission led to him being locked up for a five-year stretch.
And this was after he had finally found a suitable donor to give him a kidney.
But this reprieve was to be short-lived – he was soon sent to jail, where, within a few weeks, he lost his newly donated kidney, leaving him without any kidneys again, forcing him to return to the 6-hour dialysis sessions, three times a week, every week, for the rest of his life.
The law says that he is a drug dealer ruining people’s lives, but to his family and friends, he was a dedicated father and a hard worker trying to deal with his newly diagnosed illness, as well as the recent death of his sister by brain tumour, all while juggling three jobs.
Christopher’s life expectancy isn’t good
“Chris has every problem that a man could have, but looking at him, you’d never tell, he never complains, nothing,” Rachel, his partner, told Lovin Malta. “Even though he doesn’t show his pain, towards the end, right before he was going to prison, I’d find him waking up in the middle of the night, and just crying quietly to himself…he was still trying to hide it.”
Rachel is among a group of people now calling on the President to let Christopher out on the rarely-used “special cases bail“, where the President could set her own bail conditions and give Chris back his freedom, which, Rachel argues, would allow him to spend the remaining years of his life with his children.
“The thing I keep asking myself,” said Rachel,” is doesn’t the magistrate realise that this man doesn’t have a long life expectancy, and she is going to give him five years in jail anyway? His life expectancy isn’t like ours… he could find a new donor, if God wishes, but it’s not easy, not at all… He has no kidneys right now, if something fails he will die. He is living on a machine.”
Sarah, his ex-partner and mother of his child, is even more straight to the point: “Send this sick father home to his children, at least until the court re-opens his case, assesses the case, and then moves forward.”
She is referring to recent developments that led to Christopher winning a constitutional case proving that his human rights had been breached when the police interrogated him.
An unjust imprisonment
Not only was he not allowed a lawyer, but the police picked him up after a 6-hour dialysis session at hospital, when he was in a very vulnerable state.
“When all of this came out and he was arrested and taken to Mt. Carmel, the first thing I told him when I visited him was ‘Chris, x’fettilek?’ (Chris, what were you thinking?),” said Sarah, “and he said ‘Sarah, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was gone, I had just done dialysis, I was feeling like I was in a movie, like I was on a cloud, and I thought they’d be sorry for me.’ I said ‘Chris, you are not right in the head’; malajr they felt sorry for him.”
“The police kept telling him ‘speak to us, we are here to help you, we are here to help you’ – they sure helped him, helped him dig his own grave that is,” she said fiercely.
After his arrest, the courts froze his assets, which consisted of a 1990 Opel Corsa, valued at €200.
A slim chance of hope
Christopher’s loved ones, as well as lawyers and social advocates, now look with hope to the President and the chances of him being freed after his constitutional case win.
“Now his case starts again from scratch, and all we did was ask for bail – not for a presidential pardon mind you, I don’t want him to get a presidential pardon believe it or not: I’m a mother and if my son breaks the law he must pay, the law is there to be respected, you cannot just break the law,” said Sarah.
“And if Chris had been charged with cocaine possession, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. But I am mature enough to distinguish between the drugs on the market and I know he only got involved with this stuff because of his illness,” said Sarah.
“All I know,” said Rachel, “is cannabis never killed anyone, and this was a man who worked three jobs at a time, and all of a sudden he ended up ill, without pay, and a baby on the way. This isn’t a Class A drug, cannabis, it’s not heroin, it’s not going to kill anyone… alright, it’s illegal, imma isn’t five years too much, plus a €15,000 fine – especially from someone who can’t even hold a full time job now… Ara minn ha jħallashom dawn (see who is going to pay that money)” she said.
Will Malta move to help a sick father in his time of need?
Every passing day that Christopher spends lying sick in prison is another day that his children remain fatherless.
“When they took Chris away, our son Zack said to me ‘do you think you can help daddy?’ and I said ‘I don’t know,’ and he looked me in the eyes and said ‘at least try,'” said Sarah.
“Is this the price one has to pay, for falling ill? And who is really suffering? I’ll tell you – his children,” she continues, as she explains that Zack’s grades have fallen by 30% since Chris was thrown into prison.
Now is the time for compassion
Is this the way we want to treat a man with a terrible illness? If there was ever a case for compassion in Malta, it would be with a man who lost both his kidneys as well as a third donated kidney; a man whose two sons are waiting every day for word of their father returning; a man who is the clearest reason for why Malta as a nation should not be criminalising cannabis users, especially medicinal ones.
“Chris doesn’t want money as compensation,” said Rachel with a sigh, “he wants freedom, to be with his family, with his children. His life expectancy is shorter than most people’s, so is it really too much to ask that he spends some more time with his children before something terrible happens?”
Below is the reply from the Office of the President after reading this article
The Office of the President would like to point out that this is not a decision which the President takes upon her own judgement, but acts upon the recommendation of the Cabinet or a Minister.
This is, in fact, very clearly stated in Article 85 of the Constitution which states that ‘in the exercise of his/her functions, the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet.’