MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | Promoted villains

NEWS | Sunday, 18 May 2008

Promoted villains

Bar the occasional officer sacked for unknown reasons, the police force has a history of promoting villains – from liars to officers implicated in murders, cover-ups and frame-ups. Karl Schembri reports

The idea of digging up files in search of some past crime on one’s criminal record is one of the tenets behind the mentality of police investigators trying to find suspects when faced with some crime.
It is a largely accepted practice, as the investigator goes through the names on the police database, to assume that if one was associated with a crime in the past, he might be associated again with a new crime.
The practice is so accepted that even the court, when handing down sentence, takes into account the criminal record of the person in the dock in deciding the severity of the penalty deserved, or whether the accused still awaiting trial could be trusted with bail in exchange for temporary freedom.
And yet, when it comes to handling the suspicious elements within it, the police force seems to close both eyes to its own members’ past history in a veritable case of two weights and two measures.
The latest case that says a lot about the seriousness of our uniformed corps regards that of police constable Adrian Lia’s promotion to sergeant last February, just two months before the mysterious death of Nicholas Azzopardi after his arrest.
Lia was in charge of Azzopardi while he was at police headquarters and is in fact mentioned in the internal police report as the officer accompanying him just before the incident that eventually led to his death on 22 April.
Ten years ago, Lia had deceived the police force, the government and the public of having saved a woman from drowning in Sliema, only to be exposed by eyewitnesses later, after he had been awarded a gold medal by the government and the police commissioner.
But despite having embarrassed the police force and the government, Lia was still allowed to apply for a promotion to police sergeant a decade later, with barely two months elapsing since his new rank when he found himself implicated in the Azzopardi debacle.
The Azzopardi case evokes uncanny similarities with the infamous murder of Nardu Debono in 1980 while under police custody, and even in that case, the officer indicated as the man who dumped the corpse in that horrific cover-up is still working as a policeman.
Police Sergeant 710 Joseph Mangion remains employed with the police – even against the Police Commissioner’s own recommendation for his removal in the public interest three years ago – “another stab in the wound” for the Debono family that can’t believe that the person dumping the corpse of its son and brother is still wearing uniform.
Conveniently, government awarded financial compensation to the family to the tune of Lm150,000 on the eve of the 2003 election – 23 years since the murder of Debono – but that is as far as the Nationalist administration went about redressing the injustices of the infamous 80s.
The disgraced officer was a key witness in the controversial trial by jury of former Police Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino, who was found guilty of complicity in the murder of Nardu Debono while the latter was under arrest.
Following Debono’s murder, the police fabricated a cover-up, arguing that Debono had escaped from the depot.
During Pullicino’s trial, Mangion testified that he had seen Debono walking in Hal Qormi but other officers had testified they had seen Mangion carrying Debono on his shoulders and throwing him in the luggage booth of the car of the former commissioner. According to evidence given in Pullicino’s case, Mangion then dumped Debono in Wied ic-Cawsli, Hal Qormi. He will be able to retire enjoying a full service pension and free from criminal prosecution.
Another case outlining the police’s reluctance in investigating and prosecuting their own colleagues and former buddies relates to that of Nicolai Magrin, the disgraced transport authority (ADT) driving examiner who ran over the father of Labour MP Joseph Cuschieri in April 2006 while driving under the influence of alcohol.
Magrin, who is the son of a former police officer, was about to remain free of any charges were it not for the reporting by this newspaper exposing how he ran over Cuschieri with three times the permitted alcohol levels.
Neither the police nor the authority took action against the driving examiner until MaltaToday broke the story, which also exposed him as one of the corrupt driving examiners taking bribes to pass students.
The conclusions of the inquiry into the Transport Authority’s bribery scandal revealed that “had not the article on the traffic accident of 29 April 2006 in which Mr Nicolai Magrin was involved appeared in the MaltaToday of 18 June 2006, it might well have transpired that this traffic accident would have gone unprosecuted notwithstanding that the Police had all the evidence to base a strong charge against him.”
The inquiry revealed that PS 1268 Ivan Caruana, who was on duty at the Sliema police station at the time of the accident, failed to file charges against Magrin.
Last year, sister paper Illum revealed how a mobile squad police constable was working as a sex escort and formed part of an online network of sex slavery and human trafficking. But despite the shocking revelations, the constable was promoted to police sergeant.
And in the army, the man whose name will remain in history for his disastrous plan to control protesting immigrants at Hal Safi four years ago was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel last year, in a 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 – was granted the promotion by the prime minister last November.
His great 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.
Yet the Depasquale inquiry was itself rubbished as a veritable whitewash, given that it held 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.

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