The Maltese courts will be forced to grant bail to the three men charged with assassinating journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a month’s time, with the long-drawn-out compilation of evidence proceedings nearing its 20th month without a bill of indictment being issued.
The current situation seems all the more puzzling given that Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit declared there was enough prima facie evidence to issue a bill of indictment against the three men on 21 December 2017, less than three weeks after the men had first been charged with the crime.
A bill of indictment is issued expressly by Malta’s Attorney General and is, in essence, a call for the accused person to appear before a grand jury.
Vince Muscat, George Degiorgio and his brother Alfred Degiorgio were arrested and charged with the brutal murder on 5 December 2017. However, the case has continuously rolled on, as legal battles within constitutional courts appear to have delayed proceedings.
The last compilation of evidence sitting took place on May 22 and saw FBI witnesses sent down to Malta from the US return home without even setting foot inside the courtroom after defence lawyers withdrew their request for cross-examination.
While the men have been charged with the crime, they have all pleaded not guilty.
Without an indictment, the presumption of innocence (and the oft-quoted rule of law) prevents any person from being held against their will for such an extended period, no matter the crime.
The Maltese courts have set this limit at 20 months. However, the law clearly stipulates that an inquiry must be concluded within one month, with extensions only being granted by the President upon a written request from the court month upon month.
This should be seen as an exception and not the rule, with the law even saying that this exclusive right should not be extended for more than three months.
It remains to be seen why the AG has been reluctant to issue to the bill of indictment almost a year and a half later. However, legal experts have explained that he may be waiting to ensure that prosecutors have an open and shut case.