NEWS | Sunday, 18 November 2007

Officer responsible for disastrous handling of protest promoted

Karl Schembri

The man whose name will remain on the Armed Forces of Malta’s history for his disastrous plan to control protesting immigrants at Hal Safi three years ago has just been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the promotions exercise that has seen the morale of the highest ranking officers descending to unprecedented lows.
Ian Ruggier – the architect of the infamous ‘Pjan Ruggier’ (Ruggier Plan) in the Hal Safi beating of immigrants in January 2005 – has just been granted the promotion by the prime minister together with a number of others, turning the army into what disgruntled veteran officers are describing as “having too many chiefs and not many Indians”.
The Ruggier Plan was described in the retired Judge Franco Depasquale’s inquiry into the Safi beatings although the report has been also dumped by human rights organisations as a veritable whitewash exonerating the AFM’s responsibility in the violent beatings.
Both the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Church’s Emigrants’ Commission had questioned the wisdom to implement the plan aimed at cordoning off the ringleaders of the protest when the army was totally untrained for such operations.
The plan included sending a riot squad to the field in an attempt to instil fear among the protesters as soldiers equipped in full riot gear marched towards them wielding truncheons.
According to Judge Depasquale’s reconstruction of the chain of events, the Ruggier Plan turned into a free for all show of violence, with over 20 protestors ending up in hospital.
Depasquale had found nobody guilty for excessive force save for one soldier who was recognisable since his visor was up, filmed as he beat a detainee who was being kept on the ground by another soldier.
“The Board considers the negative attitude of the protestors and the effect this had on the other compound, which was even more vulnerable and dangerous,” Judge Depasquale had said in his inquiry report. “The Board is of the opinion that the Brigadier was justified in ordering the Ruggier plan to keep the Third Country Nationals from escaping and returning them with the use of force.”
Meanwhile the army’s top brass has been heavily demoralised by the promotions exercise which saw some of the top names among the senior officers being skipped for less qualified juniors.
Tony Abela’s so-called “army restructuring” has meant increasing the top brass by six new colonels and five lieutenant colonels in an army that by foreign standards would be considered a brigade.
“We are possibly the only army in the world to have all those colonels and lieutenant colonels,” an officer said.
“They’ve just binned 20 years of selfless service, dedication to duty, loyalty and professional integrity at the stroke of a pen,” another officer said. “The deflated feeling of lacked accomplishment is indescribable. … the promotion of the colonels’ group comes too damn close to their last promotion exactly a year ago. Where in the world are there so many full colonels for a brigade-sized military element?”

Disastrous plan, incredible inquiry
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees had called for appropriate action to be taken to address the systemic causes of the Safi incidents. Together with the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, the Maltese government is still a long way off from implementing long-term solutions to the problematic system they keep alive.
In a joint position paper by the JRS and the Emigrants Commission slam the Depasquale report on the negative portrayal of asylum seekers in detention: in the inquiry the protest is referred to as “an escape” when in reality the detainees remained within the confines of the Safi barracks; the fact that the protest was planned rather than a burst of spontaneous disobedience is criticised; rejected asylum seekers are portrayed as liars, doing their utmost to frustrate government’s attempts to deport them; their refusal to move back into the compound until they met up with the government authorities is seen as a “negative attitude” (the Judge failed to understand that this could have potentially defused the situation and yet the army decided not to let either Refugee Commissioner Charles Buttigieg or UNHCR representative Manca de Nissa inside).
In his analysis in the aftermath of the publication of the 97-page Depasquale report in December 2005, MaltaToday Midweek editor Matthew Vella said: “Stating the obvious, in many ways confirming the disorganisation of the so-called Ruggier plan to send a riot squad into the field, the report is an effective whitewash: it (the report) berates the media; it supports fanciful allegations of ‘foreign invasions’ from misinformed sources; it imparts mock renditions of the Maltese people, whose generosity is at times championed, and at other times the lack of generosity is justified by the fears of economic migration. … It admits to the violence, the disorganisation of the AFM soldiers, the fact the detainees were beaten up whilst sitting down, and yet it exonerates everybody, even justifying the use of force. … The so-called Ruggier plan went horribly wrong, a simple operation to cordon off or snatch away the ringleaders turning into a disorganised mess of gratuitous violence.”

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