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INTERVIEW | Sunday, 15 June 2008

And justice for all

The new minister for Justice and Home Affairs, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, wants to implement some important changes ranging from detention centres to making judges and magistrates more accountable. But he is also aware it’s a ministry full of snares and pitfalls, hence the need to tread carefully

 

Coming form a family of politicians and himself having been a junior minister in the same ministry he now finds himself heading, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici knows exactly what needs to be changed, and what is likely and less likely to change.
At 48, the lawyer who succeeds Tonio Borg – now Foreign Minister – is not only inheriting a hot seat crying out for reforms of direct consequence to our civil liberties, safety and justice system, but it is also a veritable super ministry that is much more prone to gaffes than glamour.
Indeed, his ministry has been pruned of the less controversial stuff like the lands department, the civil registry and local councils (the latter not a totally calm department either) only to focus more on the hard stuff of irregular immigration, the police force, and the judiciary.
But despite being no newcomer to Auberge d’Aragon – the same building from where George Borg Olivier planned Malta’s Independence – Mifsud Bonnici brings with him a breath of fresh air marking a break with his predecessor’s policies.
At the mention of being just at the start of the immigration open season, he takes exception at the phrase indicating a more understanding disposition towards the afflicted individuals.
“That’s an ugly word,” he tells me.
Considering how people in his seat before him have used and abused metaphors to describe this time of the year as regards immigration, I am quite taken by surprise at his approach. Tonio Borg used to speak of influxes of illegal immigrants, Tony Abela of “a tsunami of illegals”, and many others from the House of Representatives have said all sorts of things about the people crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of a better future.
Even when he disagrees, Mifsud Bonnici uses understatement. He remains calm but at the same time showing he is very much on ball.
Government is prepared for the same amounts of immigrants as last year’s: from 1,700 to 2,000 reaching our shores. He says there is also a contingency plan if more arrive, and meanwhile the detention centres are about to be freed of the 800 people in them in the coming weeks as their detention period will expire, meaning that the number of people living in open centres will be around 2,800.
Meanwhile, two new open centres are about to be opened; one in Hal far and one in Santa Venera which will house families in what is known as the Apap Institute, and Mifsud Bonnici’s priority is to improve the precarious conditions in detention centres which have been attracting criticism from human rights organisations worldwide.
“We want to improve conditions drastically in detention centres. We will be removing tents and housing immigrants in new centres, and we are working on an education programme for people in detention that would give them language and skills training. We are more or less taking the same line that Malta used to take when Maltese citizens were about to migrate to Australia – they used to learn English and trades. In this way, we will be making the best use of their period of detention. We are slowly changing conditions so these people can live better, while giving them a sense of responsibility.”
Another landmark change Mifsud Bonnici is introducing is to open access to journalists into detention centres – a policy his predecessor stubbornly refused to adopt against everyone’s advice – from the European Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini to human rights NGOs and the absolute majority of Malta’s editors and journalists clamouring for transparency.
“The idea is that we have nothing to hide,” he says explaining the change of policy. “So within the coming days, journalists will be able to request to go inside a detention centre and they will be allowed in.”
It’s that simple, and yet Mifsud Bonnici goes out of his way to make sure the change in policy is not in any way used against his predecessor.
“I have two advantages: one is that my predecessors did most of the ground work, secondly I am the first minister to have both the closed and the open centres under my responsibility, which makes coordination much easier, and I also have much more freedom to manoeuvre.”
About the immigrants, he expresses his concern about their rampant abuse by employers who employ them and then sack them just before they are meant to get their wages.
“The police will be more vigilant to this problem, so that whoever is breaking the law will be charged in court,” he says. “Our message has to be clear: if you want to employ these people, do it the right way.”
I tell him the Marsa open centre has attracted much of the facile criticism from the hardline right wing fuelling popular fears and senseless racism, overlooking altogether the fact that the area was always notorious for the petty criminality on the streets of Albert Town.
“It’s a question of integration and education to combat the perceptions of threats,” he says. “I don’t exclude there might be some criminality in Marsa – as you know one is free to prostitute himself. What is illegal is the surrounding activities like loitering and pimping, but it’s nowhere near what some people and organisations might think, like terrorism or organised crime. I have no proof of that.”
About the processing of asylum seekers, Mifsud Bonnici comments favourably about the great strides made by the current refugee commissioner, but also expounds on the contribution Malta can give to developing nations.
“Part of the contribution we’re trying to give is to help developing countries from where immigrants are leaving, by helping small and medium sized enterprises, through training and resources. This way, they can go back to their countries, create jobs and wealth and they can live in more stability.”
Besides the impending immigration of hundreds of people, Mifsud Bonnici faces another immediate problem hounding his ministry. It’s the police force’s credibility, accused as it is of using brute force, allegations of manhandling suspects during interrogation and even of fatally shooting down a mentally sick citizen in Qormi last year.
The name of Nicholas Azzopardi is now synonymous with the obscure and doubtful methods of interrogation and the lacking rights of those under police custody the moment they enter the Floriana HQ.
Bastjan Borg is another case haunting the force’s image since he was shot down with five pistol shots last year in what was quickly described as an act of “self-defence” by Police Commissioner John Rizzo. Yet Borg was only armed with a pocket knife and his relatives had forewarned the police and psychiatric authorities of their beloved’s troubles and of the need for early intervention.
What unites the two cases of Azzopardi and Borg is the fact that both remain wide open wounds, unsolved as far as the magisterial inquiries are concerned, with the truth seemingly buried for good with the two victims.
Mifsud Bonnici is clearly uncomfortable to have such inquiries of direct public interest still not concluded. As it goes with the judiciary, the minister and the government in general have no say in speeding up the inquiries, although on paper and at law inquiries should be concluded within two months – a measure that is not enforced in any way.
“They are in absolute freedom,” he says of magistrates and judges drawing up their inquiry reports, “although I hope they’ll conclude them as soon as possible. Whatever the outcome, we need the conclusions to be able to learn from them and move on.”
With Bastjan Borg’s inquiry still open more than a year since he was shot down, Mifsud Bonnici does not mince his words about the urgend need to get it concluded.
“The earlier it’s concluded, the better. The longer they take to conclude, the more constrained we will be when we get to making changes to the system. There is a fixed term in the law by when they should finish an inquiry, set at 60 days. I understand that at times they need to wait for some experts’ report, or they have a work overload. There are some inquiries that get done in two months’ time, but they’re not the majority.
“One of the things I did in the previous legislature was to give the right to concerned parties to intervene in an inquiry. So if someone has an interest – for example if a relative of mine was murdered – I can ask the court after 60 days to intervene in the inquiry, to be able to attend for the inquiry sittings. That way one would know why an inquiry is stalled, say because an expert fails to finish his job, and one would be able to get a court to fine the relevant expert. It’s a right that did not exist previously and I doubt how much it is being used.
“I’m not satisfied at all with the situation. There are too many inquiries that are not yet concluded and, together with the Attorney General, I’m looking at what happens abroad so that I propose amendments in this regard. There is a huge quantity of pending inquiries.”
As to the rights of people under police interrogation, Mifsud Bonnici is also impatiently awaiting the results of the Nicholas Azzopardi inquiry which he expects to shed light on the situation within the interrogation room. Yet it was this same government which passed a Bill back in 2002 reforming the justice process and which was supposed to include the lawyer’s assistance to suspects prior to their interrogation, as opposed to their total confinement as is happening to this day.
“The Bill was passed in 2002 and it came into force in the following years,” he explains. “There were several things that changed everything – like keeping a record of the time one is interrogated in, the way police can arrest people, police bail, identification of suspects, police searches – it was revolutionary. This part (about lawyers’ assistance) was left out, it wasn’t enforced. The law says that before an interrogation, you can spend time with a lawyer, but you would go for the interrogation on your own. Now it’s a question of when we will bring this amendment into force and whether we should go beyond that. Given the way things happened, I am waiting for the two inquiries into the Nicholas Azzopardi case to see how they develop and the recommendations they will make. I want to do this peacefully because since the other amendments came in force in 2004, nobody mentioned this part. So it shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction. It might also include recordings of interrogations. I want to take up the recommendations that will come out of the inquiries and go discuss them in depth with the police.
We have to keep a balance between the interrogators’ leeway and the individual’s rights. Certain hardened criminals would make use of this system to get off the hook, so we have to strike a balance. Our system is far from perfect, and I know that interrogations are not really diplomacy at work, but I need to change it bearing in mind the required balance while making sure that whoever is a criminal is caught by the system.
“I’m all for transparency and more scrutiny, but I’m not 100 per cent clear where I can strike the balance, and that’s where the inquiries will come in handy.”
Mifsud Bonnici is also direct about the disservice citizens are getting from the law courts, where their cases keep being deferred without notice and piling up on long lists of pending cases stretching over long years.
“It’s totally unacceptable that as legal corps we still haven’t organised ourselves to get cases heard on time. And it’s also unacceptable to keep getting people to court for nothing. What kind of service is that?”
In order to tackle this, he is drawing up procedural regulations for the judiciary that he believes should address most of the problems with court cases, although he also expects some initial resistance from some judges and magistrates.”
Prison – another hotspot for Mifsud Bonnici – also awaits some reforms in the longer term. He believes in the introduction of parole, that remission should be better defined, and that people undergoing drug rehabilitation through court sentences should have their separate court sentences taking into account the programmes they are undergoing, “so that the correctional facilities are truly correctional” rather than disrupting all the rehabilitation programme by dumping them back in prison.
Meanwhile he is taking over the Freedom of Information Act which is currently being debated in Parliament, which was previously in the hands of the Prime Minister, and possibly in the future he will also be pushing a Whistleblower’s Act. But he is also realistic.
“Don’t I have enough for now?” he says smiling as I ask him when he will be putting forward laws protecting whistleblowers.
I remind him of Gonzi’s belief that “together, everything is possible”. But to be fair, Mifsud Bonnici seems pretty much on his own tackling problems of gargantuan proportions.

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