Malta is still reeling from the shocking rape and murder of Paulina Dembska, which has brought renewed focus on the issues of gender-based violence and the treatment of mental health in the country.
The subsequent arrest of Abner Aquilina has created more questions than answers. Sensational claims of communicating with God and the devil have stunned many, but a long history of harassment have led many to ask whether misogyny was the determining factor.
Here’s everything we know so far:
1. Paulina Dembska was raped and murdered on 2nd January
On 2nd January 2022 at 6.30am, Malta woke up to the news that a body had been discovered within Sliema’s Independence Gardens.
Later that day, Paulina Dembska, a 29-year-old Polish student living in Malta, was identified as the victim. An autopsy later revealed that she was raped and strangled.
Dembska has been remembered as a dedicated animal lover who would regularly feed the stray cats within the gardens where she was eventually murdered.
Her murder shocked the country, with many raising concerns over the pervasive issue of gender-based violence and femicide in Malta. A fundraising initiative to help repatriate Dembska and assist her family with legal feeds has already raised over €34,000.
A vigil, organised by the Women’s Rights Foundation, was held in Sliema a few days after the murder. Hundreds of people attended, as did several leading politicians, including Prime Minister Robert Abela.
2. Abner George Aquilina is the main suspect
Abner George Aquilina, a 20-year-old from Żejtun, was arrested soon after in the Balluta area, nearby the spot where Dembska’s body was found.
Just half an hour before Dembska’s body was found, Aquilina appeared at the Balluta Church. He approached the altar and caused a scene, overturning some seats. He was arrested soon after.
Aquilina reportedly attended a River of Love ceremony on Saturday, the night before the murder, after which he joined group community group members for a gathering in Żejtun that lasted till midnight.
He was allegedly set to sleep over at a River of Love member’s home and attend the church again the next day, but he was nowhere to be seen on Sunday morning.
His movements before the murder will remain a mystery, and questions will be asked as to how and why Aquilina made his way all the way to a garden in Sliema and whether the crime was premeditated.
The suspected murderer was immediately taken to the Police Headquarters for questioning. However, his interrogation was soon suspended after a doctor referred Aquilina to Mount Carmel Hospital amid concerns over his mental state.
3. A soldier of God working on the orders of the devil
Lovin Malta revealed how Aquilina made sensational claims to investigators during his brief period of interrogation, telling officers that he was a “soldier of God” working on the orders of “frequencies from the devil”.
His links to River of Love, an evangelical Christian conservative group, have added a new dimension to Aquilina’s ramblings.
Pastor Gordon-John Manche, who leads the group, has denied all links to Aquilina. However, sources who spoke to The Times of Malta have provided contrasting claims. Some say that Aquilina was undertaking guidance and believed that the devil was trying to enter his thoughts.
Manche and some other members have since been interrogated over the links, particularly after a video emerged showing Aquilina and two members hanging out on a beach just two days before the murder.
4. A history of sexual harassment
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Lovin Malta exposed how several women across Malta and Gozo have also claimed Aquilina harassed them. The newsroom received numerous screenshots from messages sent by the murder suspect.
Aquilina would use both his personal profile and other fake profiles on social media to contact women, some of whom he met in passing. He rarely took no for an answer.
In most, Aquilina makes repeated requests for sexual interaction with the women, at points even threatening that he will simply show up to where they live or work. Aquilina would send either voice notes or messages to the women he was harassing online.
Meanwhile, a woman detailed how she and a friend were confronted by an erratic Aquilina when she visited Xrobb l-Għaġin on New Year’s Eve, the exact location the murder suspect featured in a video with River of Love members.
Police have asked women who claimed Aquilina sexually harassed them to come forward and file an official complaint, pledging to take it “very seriously”.
5. Mental illness or femicide?
While Dembska’s family and friends grieve, Malta remains locked in a debate over whether gender-based violence or mental illness was behind the shocking murder.
However, like most complex issues, the incident should not be considered black or white.
The fact that Dembska was raped, in a location far away from Aquilina’s residence, at a time when people would not be around must not be ignored. And neither should Aquilina’s mental health and whether external forces escalated the behaviour.
Still, mental illness does not mean that you lacked a guilty mind at the time of the offence and police will be looking for any evidence that suggests Aquilina was acting of his own volition.
6. What next?
While Aquilina is currently in Mount Carmel Hospital being seen by experts, it does not mean that the investigation or the case is on hold. Police investigations remain very much underway and still plan to charge Aquilina with the murder and rape of Dembska.
The interrogation will likely continue soon, and sources expect Aquilina to be charged sometime next week.
An insanity plea will need to be filed by Aquilina and his legal team. An expert team will be appointed by the courts and the defence must prove that when the accused carried out the crimes, they were unable to control the outcome of their actions.
Still, successfully pleading insanity is not some easy way out for the accused, who could still face life within the walls of Mount Carmel rather than Corradino.
Malta, meanwhile, will continue to grieve for Dembska, with many hoping that her senseless murder will finally open up the door to long-term change with the treatment of women in the country and the treatment of persons who have a mental illness.
What do you think about the case?