Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 28 September 2008

Is there life on Marsden?

What is it about Malta and drugs, exactly? Why is it that we can be as European as everyone else in matters such as fiscal policy and common currency... but when it comes to the “D” word, we instantly revert to our North African roots, and simply lock ‘em all up and leave them to rot?

OK, let’s talk a little about the two (not one, but TWO) cases of foreigners currently held at CCF (Corradino Correctional Farce-ility), for the grave crime of importing perfectly legal substances.
The first case involves a British national named Steven Marsden, who was apprehended by the police in 2006 with approximately 50,000 capsules of an unidentified substance in his possession.
Yes indeed. I can see the thought processes at work behind his immediate arrest: the man is a foreigner; the man has pills; ergo, the man must be a drug trafficker. QED.
I can also just imagine the sheer excitement that must have reigned at the Police Headquarters in Floriana when they got that call from Customs. Yippee! Another harmless foreigner to parade about, for all the world as though they’d just arrested Carlos The Jackal’s little-known psychopathic cousin.
(These people, by the way, are the very same upon whose perspicacity we depend for the security of our country. Don’t you feel so much safer now? I sure do...)

But anyway... never mind that the customs officials who detained Mr Marsden until the arrival of the Mighty Maltese Police Force made no attempt to actually identify said tablets, which – for all they knew – could just as easily have been a lifetime’s supply of Imodium. Never mind also that when the police finally turned up and hauled the hapless Marsden off to jail, they trumpeted this latest find as the “largest local ecstasy haul ever.”

Largest ever ecstasy haul? Largest ever cock-up, more like it. It seems that when these pills were finally analysed they turned out not to be ecstasy at all... but another substance called “MCCP”: also known as “herbal ecstasy” in the UK, and deemed to about as harmful as your average energy drink, available over the counter at practically any bar in Malta.
More important still, MCCP was at the time not listed anywhere in the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, and was therefore not in any way illegal.

So much for the story of Marsden’s arrest. The interesting part is... he’s still in jail two years later. What the hell is he doing there? Well, that’s what a UK-based NGO called “Fair Trials International” is currently asking... and if you ask me, it’s a pretty fair question, too.
But let’s try and look at it from another angle. Let’s imagine that I, Raphael the would-be herbal ecstasy trafficker, travelled to the United Kingdom with 50,000 pills of a substance that I knew was perfectly legal in that country.
Now imagine that the immigration officers at Luton (yes, I’m a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to travelling) made the mistake of assuming that my 50,000 pills happened to be you-know-what... and that by the time the misapprehension was actually detected, I had already been carted off kicking and screaming to the Tower of London, there to await execution in a dingy, rat-infested cell.
I have absolutely no idea what would happen under those circumstances. After all, it’s not exactly as though “miscarriage of justice” were some kind of uniquely Maltese invention or anything. So yes, I suppose it’s perfectly possible that the British police would stick to their guns – or truncheons, if Bobbies still haven’t progressed beyond 14th century methods of warfare – and stolidly refuse to acknowledge their silly mistake. But what about the Home Affairs Ministry? Would the government go along with the charade, too?

I don’t know, but I find it highly unlikely that British Home Affairs Minister David Milliband would defend this illegal arrest by arguing that Raphael Vassallo – despite not having actually broken any British laws – happened to have contacts in the UK who were suspected of being involved in the illicit drug trade... and that ergo, Raphael Vassallo must have come to the UK with the express intention of breaking the law, even if he lacked the means (in this case, the illicit substances) to actually break it.

The reason I doubt Milliband would argue that way is that... come on, let’s face it: it’s an argument of such remarkably improbable stupidity, that he would most likely be forced into early retirement for even thinking it up in the first place.
But then again... well, what do you know? The above is EXACTLY the argument our very own Home Affairs Minister, Mr Carm Mifsud Bonnici, now uses to defend the illegal arrest and detention of Steve Marsden.
Marvellous, innit?

Now of course, if this were simply a one-off case, I’d say... fine. We screwed up. Nobody’s perfect – least of all Carm – and besides: if the United States can get away with Guantanamo, then surely Malta is entitled to it own occasional human rights violation, too.
Trouble is: it’s not a one-off case. In fact, it seems we are developing a rather nasty habit of routinely locking up foreigners over importation of perfectly legal substances, and the consequences for our international image ain't all that pretty.

Sadly, I’ve left myself with little space to write about Mr Aweys Maani Khayre... but I’ll try and make up for that on another occasion.
These are the bare facts: Khayre, 31 from Somaliland, travelled to Malta in May 2008. He was not an illegal immigrant, but came here with a valid UK travel document to visit friends. He also had on his person upon arrival some 14 kilogrammes of Khat: a mild narcotic similar to the coca leaf, which is used in that part of Africa for ritual purposes.
OK, I’m usually the first to acknowledge that it is entirely ludicrous to make exceptions to a country’s drug laws on purely religious grounds. (Let’s face it: if someone argued in favour of human sacrifice on the basis of freedom of religion, would we all consent to allow the occasional murder here and there?)
But regardless of the “special status” enjoyed by Khat in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere (including the UK), the substance itself – like MCCP – is not actually scheduled under Chapter 31 of the laws of Malta. In other words, there is no law against the importation of Khat... but what do you know? That didn’t stop the police from arresting and detaining Khayre, who now faces a likely (and lengthy) prison sentence.

Here is a quote from Khayre's statement, submitted for the consideration of the President of the Republic on 11 September:
“...I was immediately arraigned in court and accused of nothing less than drug trafficking! To my utter surprise and dismay, the evening news, and some newspapers on the morrow, carried the report of my arrest as a headline, unanimously branding me as a dangerous drug dealer and trafficker, and lauding the police for their commendable capture...”
And this, on the other hand, is a quote from yours truly, submitted for the consideration of his monumental intelligence, the most revered Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici:
“Dear Carm; I understand you might be keen on beating a certain former Chief Justice’s record for the largest number of cases ever lost by a single human being in the European Court of Human Rights.... but your government’s obsession with detaining innocent persons on trumped-up drug trafficking charges is beginning to make us all look like a bunch of Third World retards.
"Kindly reconsider your indefensible arguments, and release those two innocent men at your earliest convenience.
Fond regards, etc.”


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