Former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri was remanded in custody on Saturday, after being charged with conspiracy, corruption, money laundering and fraud together with 10 others.
The arrest of Schembri, the man considered to be one of the most powerful on the island, was a development that many believed would never happen, and a watershed moment for anti-corruption activists, many of whom celebrated it as the first step in the long road to justice.
Before looking into what comes next, it’s important to understand exactly who Schembri’s co-charged are.
The accused were charged in four different groups, depending on the companies they were involved with.
Schembri was charged together with his father Alfio, the CEO of his group of companies, Malcolm Scerri and Robert Zammit, the group’s financial controller.
Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna, Karl Cini, Manuel Castagna and Katrin Carter Bondin made up the second group, while Matthew Pace and Lorraine Falzon from Zenith Finance made up the third group.
Former Progress Press managing director Vince Buhagiar was also charged on Saturday and was the only one to be granted bail. Adrian Hillman, a former managing director at Allied Newspapers, is presently in the United Kingdom and is expected to be transferred to Malta to be charged in court.
Schembri will remain in custody for the time being, at least until Friday, when the first sitting in the compilation of evidence against him and his associates will take place before Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech at 8.30am.
In that sitting, the magistrate will need to decide on a fresh request for bail submitted by Schembri’s lawyers this week.
Schembri was denied bail by Magistrate Charmaine Galea who noted that the charges against him and his associates involved money laundering, with investigations still ongoing.
She said that while it was true that they had, up until the point of being charged cooperated with the police, the situation was now different. “It’s not a science-fictional fear, but a real one,” the magistrate said.
1. So what happens next?
Now that Schembri has been charged, the case will proceed to the compilation of evidence before the Court of Magistrates.
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech will be tasked with presiding over sittings during which the prosecution will present the evidence it has against the accused.
Schembri’s first sitting will be held this Friday at 8:30am. Meanwhile, Zenith’s Falzon and Pace will appear in court tomorrow at 8.30am.
At the end of the process, she will decide whether there is enough evidence for them to stand trial.
Should she decide that there is in fact enough evidence, a bill of indictment will be issued by the Attorney General’s office. The case will then move to the Criminal Court, which will first determine any preliminary pleas or pleas regarding the admissibility of evidence.
The court then moves to determine whether the accused are guilty of the crime. Once the case arrives before the criminal court, it is presided by a Judge and nine jurors. A decision on whether or not the accused is guilty is taken by the jurors.
If the crime is punishable by anything less than life imprisonment, the accused can request that their case be decided by a Judge alone, though this rarely happens.
2. Will he remain in prison until the case is decided?
The short answer is, it depends.
The right to bail emerges from the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, meaning that its refusal should be the exception and not the rule.
However, bail can only be granted when the court is satisfied that the person, once released, will not prejudice the ends of justice. This does not mean that the court can enter into the merits of the case and whether the evidence suggests that the person is in fact guilty.
It may, however, deny bail if it is not convinced that the person will abide by the bail conditions laid down by the court, or if it believes that this would somehow derail the course of justice. The refusal of bail is a precautionary measure.
According to the criminal code, bail should be denied if:
- the court is not satisfied that the accused will appear when ordered by the authority specified in the bail bond;
- there is a fear that they will abscond or leave Malta;
- there is a fear that they won’t observe all of the conditions imposed by the court in its decree granting bail;
- there is a fear that they might attempt to interfere with witnesses or otherwise obstruct or attempt to obstruct the course of justice; there is a fear they will commit another offence.
In their submissions on bail, Schembri and his associates’ lawyers, as well as those of the other seven people accused, all noted that their clients had cooperated fully with police and had respected all the conditions laid out by the police.
They argued that there was no fear of absconding given that all their assets and families live in Malta and that there was no fear of them tampering with evidence, given that most of it was documentary evidence that is already in the police’s possession.
Bail was however denied on the basis of investigations being ongoing, meaning that there was still a possibility that potential witnesses or other incriminating evidence could be tampered with.
Moreover, the fact that the charges included forgery and giving false testimony also suggests that the accused have no problem interfering with the course of justice.
Ultimately, however, the decision on whether or not to grant bail will depend on the particular magistrate’s interpretation of the facts of the case, which are likely to change over time. It is therefore possible that Schembri’s request for bail will be accepted on Friday or at any time after that.
3.What about Schembri’s Constitutional rights?
Schembri’s lawyers have on multiple occasions claimed a breach of his fundamental rights. In a case filed last week, they call on the courts to declare the magisterial inquiry into the Hillman affair “null and with no legal effect”, on the basis of what he claims are a number of irregularities in the way in which the inquiry was conducted.
These mainly relate to the inquiry having taken almost four years to complete, the fact that one of the court experts appointed by the magistrate was Miroslava Milenovic, who is involved in a political party in her home country and therefore “not impartial”, as well as the fact that, according to Schembri, key witnesses, including Malcolm Scerri, Robert Zammit and Adrian Hillman were not allowed to testify in the inquiry.
The first sitting in the case is scheduled for the 15th April at 8:30am.
Meanwhile, Schembri’s lawyers are also arguing that magistrate Galea’s refusal to accept his bail request also constituted a violation of his human rights and will, according to media reports, also be challenging this from a Constitutional standpoint.