MaltaToday | 17 August 2008

Editorial | Sunday, 17 August 2008

The unanswered questions

The inquiry conducted by Magistrate Anthony Vella into the mysterious death of Nicholas Azzopardi was concluded last week, and at a glance, the conclusions appear to exonerate the police of any wrongdoing.
This was enough for certain observers to jump to the conclusion that no wrongdoing could possibly have taken place, and to question the role of this newspaper in bringing the story to light in the first place.
This is a premature judgement, to say the least. As things stand, we have had access only to the Ministry’s comments on the report’s conclusions. We have yet to read the report itself, which the AG has described as “bulky”; and with a separate investigation still under way - this time conducted by Judge Albert Manche - it is altogether too early to pass judgement on the outcome of the magisterial inquest.
But a few facts need to be borne in mind regarding the way this story commenced and then developed over the past four months. Let us start with MaltaToday’s role in making the matter public.
When, on April 9, Nicholas Azzopardi was rushed to hospital suffering from severe injuries after an interrogation at the Floriana depot, the only public announcement of this fact was a bland and concise police press release claiming that a man had sustained injuries in an attempted escape from police custody. Unaccountably, when Azzopardi died in hospital two weeks later, there was no announcement of any kind at all... despite the fact that he was still technically the police’s responsibility at the time. This automatically raises the question: why would the police announce an attempted escape, but then, not the death of the same detainee? And would any statement have been made at all, had this newspaper not publicised the story? There can be little doubt about it: the answer is a clear “No.”
It is worth remembering also that when this newspaper ran a front-page story announcing the allegation of a police beating, the allegation in question had not been concocted by MaltaToday, but instead released by none other than the victim himself, who was by that point already dead.
This he did very emphatically and very dramatically, having been videoed on his deathbed accusing the police of having thrown (or dumped) him off the bastion behind the CID unit at the police headquarters in Floriana. A few hours after making this claim, Nicholas Azzopardi was dead. His family members insist that his state of health was on the mend at the time. They insist that an unidentified man had prevented one of them from entering the ward with a camera on the day that he died. They also claim to have purchased from the hospital pharmacy potentially life-saving drugs, but that these were not administered by the hospital staff.
Faced with a series of accusations of this magnitude, MaltaToday would have been criminally negligent not to publish the story and give it the prominence it deserved.
On another level, it also transpired that one of the two policemen who interrogated Azzopardi, had some 10 years earlier been caught out in a blatant lie. PC Adrian Lia had claimed to have saved a woman from drowning off the Sliema coast, and was awarded a medal for bravery.
Later it turned out that he had lied about his role in the incident, and in fact he was not even present at the scene. The medal was duly withdrawn, but incredibly, Lia was subsequently promoted.
It is also ironic that the word of a proven liar seems to have convinced a magistrate more than that of Nicholas Azzopardi... but again, without the full report in hand it would be premature to comment.
Ultimately, however, there is another side to this issue which goes beyond whether or not Nicholas Azzopardi’s deathbed claims were actually true.
It remains a fact that, no matter the circumstances, the police must assume responsibility for all those who enter the Depot for interrogation. This in turn means that even if the police are right, and Azzopardi did become suicidal while in custody, we are still owed an explanation as to how he was left alone to amble about the premises at will (as CCTV footage suggests), and to eventually jump off a three-storey bastion.
If the Azzopardi case illustrates anything, it is that procedures at the Police Depot are in serious need of an overhaul. It turns out that after a widely publicised reform carried out in 2004, the government neglected to publish the relevant legal notices, with the result that several important changes cannot be affected.
Incredibly, four months after Azzopardi’s death, this issue has not been addressed. Deatinees have no access to lawyers while in detention, and interrogations are not recorded. One can only wonder what Minister Mifsud Bonnici is waiting for to introduce these changes. Another mysterious death? Another public relations disaster? The mind boggles.

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