MaltaToday | 24 August 2008

Editorial | Sunday, 24 August 2008

Case closed? Not exactly

Two separate inquiries into the Nicholas Azzopardi case have now been concluded, and both have exonerated the police of allegations of brutality leading to his death on April 22.
The inquiries, conducted by Magistrate Tonio Vella and Judge Albert Manche respectively, both came to identical conclusions: Nicholas Azzopardi, who was about to be arraigned on charges of molesting his daughter, attempted to take his own life by jumping off a three storey bastion behind the Floriana depot.
As the newspaper which originally publicised Azzopardi’s deathbed claims that he had been thrown off that bastion after a police beating, MaltaToday accepts the basic outcome of these two inquiries: i.e., that the alleged beatings never took place.
However, it does not follow that the ‘case is now closed’. A number of questions remain unanswered – indeed, unaddressed – by the two inquiries. Foremost among these, the intrinsic question of who, in this country, is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of persons in detention.
It also bears repeating that the role of the free press is precisely to investigate allegations on issues which are of direct public concern. In this case, Azzopardi made some very serious allegations indeed, and these were greatly exacerbated by the fact that he died shortly afterwards. Serious allegations require serious investigation; but were it not for the coverage given to the case by MaltaToday, there would have been no investigation whatsoever. In fact, we would not even have known of Azzopardi’s death at all, as the police did not report that he had passed away while still technically under arrest, and therefore directly under their care.
In other countries this would be called a “cover-up”. In Malta, it is simply business as usual.
Another point this newspaper has stressed time and again - and which is all the more relevant now that the inquiries are concluded - is that regardless of how Nicholas Azzopardi came to find himself under that bastion, his safety was the sole and direct responsibility of the police force from the moment he crossed the threshold of the Floriana depot.
From this perspective, the two inquiries have let the police off remarkably for this negligence. For instance, both inquiry reports seem unperturbed by the fact that, according to eye-witness testimony, the suicide attempt took place while the accompanying officer was looking the other way.
This is hardly a serious attitude, and in other countries the police officer in question would be suspended pending an internal police inquiry. Judging by past experiences, in Malta he would most likely be promoted.
Most remarkable of all, however, neither inquiry felt the need to issue any recommendations with a view to improving health and safety procedures in custody. Again, this singles Malta out as unique among Western European democracies, in that issues as serious as these are barely addressed at all.
Again, other countries do things differently. In March 2008 - coincidentally, a month before Azzopardi met his death - the UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission issued a series of guidelines following reports of accidental deaths and injuries in police custody. Identifying attempted suicide as a leading cause of such deaths, the ICCP set out numerous recommendations: among them: “for police forces to ensure that Custody Officers are aware of the requirements for the monitoring and observation of detainees as outlined in PACE Code C and national guidance on ‘The Safer Detention & Handling of Persons in Police Custody’.”
Contrast this to the laxity that characterises every aspect of the Azzopardi case – from the casual attitude to health and safety, to the non-reporting of his death, to the fact that the two inquiries seem unconcerned with recommending improvements to the status quo – and the picture that emerges is hardly one which inspires confidence in the force.
All in all, it is little short of astonishing that Azzopardi should have died the way he did, without prompting even a demand for an overhaul of current police practices. As things stand, without any recommendations to the contrary, the situation will most likely remain as it is. No doubt a sizeable section of the press – including one or two sizeable ‘so-called’ columnists – will continue to see this in a positive light. But MaltaToday will continue to insist that the police are legally and morally obliged to guarantee the health and safety of persons in their care: something they abjectly failed to do in the case of Nicholas Azzopardi.

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