Courtroom sketches by Seb Tanti Burlo’
A morning which started out with eagerness to see exactly what evidence the police had against the three suspects charged with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia turned into a frustrating reminder of how slow Malta’s wheels of justice can turn.
The three suspects – George Degiorgio (Ic-Ċiniż), his brother Alfred (Il-Fulu) and their friend Vincent Muscat (Il-Koħħu) were led into the courtroom at around 9:30am this morning. All polished up and wearing dark suits, the men did not look in the least bit disconcerted that they are the main suspects of Malta’s crime of a decade.
George Degiorgio in the dock
Alfred Degiorgio in the dock
Vince Muscat kept twiddling with his fingers throughout, but this movement might not have betrayed his nervousness, but rather his constant need to stimulate the nerves in his hands – a condition he has had ever since he was shot in the head in 2014, an incident which left him blinded in one eye.
Other than that, the suspects appeared at ease, relaxed even – at one point Alfred Degiorgio crossed his arms and stretched out his legs. They seemed completely unfazed that they were being watched by the international press (a Reuters journalist was present in the courtroom) and, more directly, by the family of the woman they have been charged with murdering.
It was not just the late journalist’s husband Peter who turned up today, but also her parents and two of her sisters. For the parents, this was the first time they came face to face with the men charged with assassinating their daughter and they took it in their stride- no shouts, no cries, no emotions getting the better of them.
Vincent Muscat in the dock
After months of speculation and contradictory reports, journalists were eager to hear the police reveal for themselves the exact evidence they had collected against the three men. Yet it never got that far.
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech started by asking the three suspects whether they had any lawyers – to which they all answered in the negative, while Alfred Degiorgio said they reserve the right to appoint a lawyer they trust in the future. This gave credence to media reports that Malta’s top criminal lawyers are all reluctant to touch this case, leading to an unusual situation whereby the suspects in such a high-profile case had no choice but to be represented by legal aid lawyers – namely Benjamin Valenzia, Martin Fenech and Francina Abela.
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech
The case was about to start, but Frendo Dimech had a minor declaration to make…that she had gone to class with one of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sisters back in the 1980s.
“Our relationship was limited to greeting each other in the morning,” she said. “More recently, we offered our condolences to each other because we had both lost a relative.”
The legal aid lawyers escorted the suspects out of the courtroom for a few minutes before returning to demand the magistrate recuse herself from the case on the grounds her relationship with Caruana Galizia’s sister could present her conflict of interest.
“Justice doesn’t just have to be done, it has to be seen to be done,” Martin Fenech kept repeating.
Legal aid lawyer Martin Fenech
Prosecution lawyer Philip Galea Farrugia
To back up their arguments, the lawyers pounced on a recent case in which Judge Joseph Micallef was forced to recuse himself from a case concerning sexual abuse at a church home in view of the fact that he was president of the Church-owned Radju Marija Association.
However, a bemused Frendo Dimech said she couldn’t understand how parallels could be drawn between the two cases and she was backed by prosecuting lawyer Philip Galea Farrugia and PN MP Therese Comodini Cachia – appearing in parte civile for the Caruana Galizia family.
“Maltese society is so small that if you look hard enough, I’m sure most people in this courtroom have some sort of connection with each other,” she said. “If you recuse yourself, then we risk reaching a point where justice is served to no one.”
The prosecution lawyers face off against the defence
The sitting was put on hold for two hours and journalists were left to speculate what will happen next. A worrying possibility being floated around was that Frendo Dimech would not withdraw from the case and that the suspects’ lawyers would respond by opening a constitutional case to force her recusal – a move that could have agonisingly delayed the compilation of evidence for several months.
Yet as it happened, Frendo Dimech decided to withdraw from the case.
“It is in everybody’s best interests for there not to be any perception of connections between the magistrate and the victim,” she said. “Even appearances could be of importance and, because justice must be seen to be done, any magistrate of whom there is reason to fear impartiality must withdraw from the case.”