News | Sunday, 25 January 2009

Malta slammed over arrest, interrogation procedure

A UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention this week expressed outright condemnation of Malta’s arrest procedure – in which suspects are routinely denied access to legal representation while under interrogation – as well as the conditions of closed centres where irregular immigrants are detained.
The United Nations delegation was in Malta last week to assess the government’s detention policy, with regard to both irregular migration and the criminal justice system. In a press conference on Friday, Rapporteur Manuela Carmena Castrillo said that according to the group’s preliminary findings, Malta’s detention policy for migrants is “not in line with international human rights law”, and highlighted numerous shortcomings which required urgent attention.
These include the detention of vulnerable persons such as small children, as well as the general conditions in the closed centres, which are substantially worse than those in prison.
Echoing concerns raised repeatedly by MaltaToday, the UN working group also harshly criticised the Malta Police’s arrest and interrogation procedure, expressing concern “that persons arrested on suspicion of having committed a criminal offence do not enjoy the right to access to lawyers for up to 48 hours while they are in police custody, during the crucial initial stage of the criminal investigation.”
Vice-chairman Malick Sow called on the Maltese government address this issue with urgency. “The absence of a lawyer during this crucial period is a significant blemish on the system,” he said.
Elsewhere, the UN delegation commented that the portfolio of the Justice Ministry covered too many areas under a single umbrella, with Ms Castrillo adding that the situation was not conducive to transparency within the justice system.
Similar points have separately been raised by European Court of Human Rights Judge Dr Giovanni Bonello, who said in an interview with this newspaper: “Access to a lawyer while in detention is generally considered the very minimum of detainees’ rights... Malta is probably the only European country where this right has not been properly translated into law.”
Bonello also questioned the wisdom of having a single minister in charge both of the police and the law courts; as well as an independent prosecution which doubles up as advisor to government on legal matters.
In a prompt rebuttal to the UN delegation’s report, the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs yesterday defended its policy of detaining irregular immigrants, arguing that the UN working group had “failed to appreciate the scale of the problem.”
‘Efforts are continuously being made to enhance existing (detention) facilities and to enlarge capacity; however during 2008 Malta witnessed a record number of arrivals of 2,775, as compared to 1,702 during 2007 – an increase of 63%. Clearly this places considerable strain on Malta’s detention facilities,” the Justice Ministry said.
But it was curiously silent over criticism of Malta’s arrest and interrogation procedure, which has remained basically unchanged since the Nationalist Party came to power in 1987 under the battlecry of “Work, Justice, Liberty”.
Shortly before that election, PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami delivered an address in parliament in which he signalled his intention to introduce legal assistance to persons under arrest. But the legal reform had to wait 17 years until 2004, when parliament finally approved the necessary amendments.
Still, the relevant legal notices have not yet been published in the Government Gazette, resulting in a situation whereby the right to legal assistance exists on paper, but not in practice.
Effectively, this means that Malta’s arrest and detention procedure has not changed in any significant way since 1981, when Nardu Debono was beaten to death while in police custody.

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