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The HSBC Heist: How Prosecutors Washed Their Hands Of One Of Malta’s Most High Profile Cases

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A series of questionable decisions by the Attorney General and the police in the case against lawyer David Gatt, who was accused of masterminding the failed 2010 HSBC heist, have raised questions about whether the course of justice was intentionally subverted. 

In 2017, the long-drawn-out case against Gatt – a former police inspector who in 2001 had been removed from the police force over his alleged links to Malta’s criminal underworld – came to an end after Gatt was cleared of all charges by a magistrate. 

It has recently been thrust back into the spotlight after former Economy Minister Chris Cardona and OPM Minister Carmelo Abela have both been named to investigators as having been involved by the criminals accused of carrying out the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister, Carmelo Abela

Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister, Carmelo Abela

The case of the decade 

The case gripped Maltese society at the time, primarily because of the fantastic claims made about Gatt by Mario Portelli, a former colleague of Gatt’s in the police force. 

Portelli had accused Gatt of heading the criminal organisation that was responsible for the failed 2010 robbery as well as a number of others – including one in which €1 million was stolen from an HSBC branch in Balzan in 2007.  

Given the nature of the crimes Gatt was accused of and the fact that he was a police officer, one might have assumed the case would have been decided by a jury before the Criminal Court.

However, the case was heard by the Court of Magistrates in its criminal judicature – an inferior court where the maximum punishment that can be meted out is significantly lower than in the Criminal Court. 

Lovin Malta understands that an informal agreement had existed between the police and AG during the compilation of evidence, for the case to go to a trial by jury but this agreement was at some point reversed, though when and why this happened is unclear.  

A fact that also raised eyebrows in legal circles was that the case was never appealed. More on that later.  

Over the last months, in court proceedings related to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, career criminal Vince Muscat has testified under oath that Gatt knew of the murder plot before it happened. 

Muscat – who has admitted to his role in the murder in exchange for a reduced sentence and who is now a state witness – has also said that at some point between 2015 and 2016, there was a separate conspiracy against the journalist masterminded by Gatt and Cardona.

Former Economy Minister Chris Cardona

Former Economy Minister Chris Cardona

Following Muscat’s testimony, Lovin Malta published an article questioning whether the allegations made against Gatt by Portelli might need to be revisited in view of the revelations.  

After the article was published, various legal and law enforcement sources approached this website with more information about Gatt’s case. 

All pointed to irregularities in its handling, suggesting that the Attorney General, the police, possibly the judiciary, and likely the Executive knowingly took steps to the benefit of the accused.

‘Even Daniel Holmes appeared before a jury’

In 2010, shortly after the attempted robbery, Portelli – who would go on to be the police’s star witness in the case – had approached then-Police Commissioner John Rizzo with information about Gatt’s potential involvement in the attempted burglary and in various other crimes. This led to Gatt being charged with committing 14 serious crimes. 

Former police constable Mario Portelli, PC99

Former police constable Mario Portelli, PC99

But as the case against Gatt developed, it became very clear that the police’s investigations had not gone very far beyond Portelli’s claims and while some of his statements were corroborated by other evidence, the case ultimately boiled down to the reliability of the constable’s testimony.

By this time, Portelli had been boarded out of the force over concerns about his mental health and his credibility was severely eroded by the defence, which made it the main focus of its strategy.

While this undoubtedly had an impact on the strength of the prosecution’s case and therefore the possibility of a conviction, sources who spoke to Lovin Malta said it was unusual for such a serious and high profile case to be heard before the Court of Magistrates, since offences of a more severe nature were normally reserved for the Criminal Court. 

One even compared the case to the one against Daniel Holmes, who appeared before a jury after being caught growing cannabis plants at his Gozo home. 

The sources added that it was all the more unusual considering the magistrate, Antonio Micallef Trigona, who was presiding over the compilation of evidence, had clearly developed an antipathy towards the prosecution over the course of proceedings and was perceived by many, especially within criminal law circles to have an axe to grind with the establishment. 

This meant that the person re-examining the case had likely already made his mind up, despite the fact that a number of Portelli’s claims had in fact been corroborated.

Peter Grech’s side of the story 

Contacted by Lovin Malta, Peter Grech, the Attorney General at the time, started by noting that he did not remember much about the case other than that there had been issues with the credibility of the witness. 

He said the decision to have the case tried before the Court of Magistrates was based on the discretion to decide afforded to him by the law. 

The decision on whether the case will be tried before the Court of Magistrates – an inferior court – or the superior Criminal Court is based on the severity of the crime.  

As a general rule, the Court of Magistrates only has jurisdiction over crimes for which the maximum punishment is two years’ imprisonment. However, the Criminal Code affords the Attorney General some discretion in extending the competence of the Court of Magistrates in certain cases. 

This means that the Attorney General may decide to allow a case with a more serious punishment to be heard by the Magistrates’ Court, provided that the offence is punishable by no more than 12 years in prison. 

Former Attorney General Peter Grech

Former Attorney General Peter Grech

When the seriousness of the crimes and the fact that Gatt was facing 14 charges was pointed out to Grech, he insisted that, while he did not remember what punishment had been requested, it was likely that as the case progressed the accusations against Gatt could have been changed or reduced if it became clear there was no chance of securing a conviction. 

Gatt was in fact, ultimately accused of six crimes, including two counts of complicity in violent thefts and forming part of a criminal organisation.  

Grech denied that any pressure had been placed on him for this to happen, while stressing that any decision would have been taken after consulting with the police, who in turn told Lovin Malta, twice, that the decision on which court to try the accused is taken by the AG.  

A request for comment from the Attorney General’s office went unanswered.  

Washing his hands of the case

By choosing not to send the case before a jury, the Attorney General effectively passed the buck on one of the most high-profile cases the country has ever seen, since the AG has no legal standing in criminal proceedings before the Court of Magistrates. 

The Attorney General, therefore, has no right to make his own submissions and the responsibility of prosecuting the case is left solely in the hands of the police, who, Lovin Malta is informed, chose not to make final submissions at the case’s conclusion. 

Asked whether he felt that he had washed his hands of one of the country’s most serious criminal cases, Grech simply replied that that could be said of all cases sent before the Court of Magistrates, again stressing that sometimes one must pursue the lesser charge.

Up next, the appeal.

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