Court sketch by Sebastian Tanti Burlo
The magistrate assigned to the case against the three men suspected of assassinating journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has dismissed a call from the suspects’ defence team to recuse herself from the case.
The defence had argued that magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit could have a conflict of interest because her husband, Ian Stafrace, had been “praised” by Caruana Galizia in a blogpost in 2013.
Caruana Galizia had described Stafrace’s appointment to his then role of MEPA chief executive as proof on how the Nationalist government under Laurence Gonzi was willing to appoint Labour-leaning people to public roles.
However, Stafrace Zammit dismissed this argument: “After reading the article, I could not see any sort of praise towards my husband. The defence team’s call was not backed up by any Maltese or European legislation and is creating an absurd situation.”
Claire Stafrace Zammit was the third magistrate to be appointed to the case against George Degiorgio (Iċ-Ċiniż), his brother Alfred (Il-Fulu) and their friend Vincent Muscat (Il-Koħħu) after both Donatella Frendo Dimech and Charmaine Galea bowed out due to perceived conflicts of interest.
However, lawyer William Cuschieri and legal aid lawyer Martin Fenech argued that Caruana Galizia’s “praise” of Stafrace Zammit husband insisted the blogpost could prejudice the magistrate.
“Justice must be seen to be done and Caruana Galizia’s praise of your husband could prejudice you,” Fenech said.
The blogpost which the defence team believes could prejudice magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammir
The prosecution accused the defence team of trying to delay the case as long as possible and of turning the administration of justice into a mockery.
“As the defence is arguing, justice must be seen to be done but what the Maltese public is seeing is not justice but rather a travesty of justice,” the Attorney General’s representative Philip Galea Farrugia said. “We have never witnessed such tactics in the court, and the defence is making an absolute mockery of the law regulating the recusal of magistrates.”
PN MP Jason Azzopardi, appearing in parte civile for the Caruana Galizia family accused the defence team of trying to force Stafrace Zammit too abdicate the oath she had taken to the Constitution.
“This is nothing but a fishing expedition, and the defence have not been able to find a single sentence from the Maltese or European courts to sustain their arguments as to why the magistrate should recuse herself,” he said. “We resent in the strongest possible manner the frivolity and irresponsibility of the defence team.”
Claire Stafrace Zammit was clearly frustrated at the defence team’s arguments and shot them down even as they were making them.
“What do you want? Should all magistrates recuse themselves? Get some sort of order in your thoughts,” she said.
In another delaying tactic, the defence team also asked for the case to be suspended until the Constitutional court can decide whether the court is being pressured unjustly or not. The defence lawyers cast a doubt on how the magistrates are being appointed to the case, noting that Frendo Dimech had been chosen by lot but that her two successors had been handpicked by the Chief Justice. They also cited as pressure the fact that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had said yesterday he is confident the Chief Justice will appoint a new magistrate to the case as soon as possible.