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How the army got it wrong

Since it was published last Monday evening almost everybody, including the army, has asked for clarifications on the Safi incidents inquiry report drawn up by Judge Franco Depasquale. Mark Micallef looks at the main sections, in which the competence of the army is seriously called into question.

A couple of immigrants went up to a soldier who had the keys to a gate which separates B Block from the football pitch and asked him to let them take out the rubbish as they usually did. The soldier did and suddenly the few immigrants became a sizeable group who pushed the gate open and walked to the centre of the football pitch, a few carrying makeshift banners.

That is how the peaceful protest at Safi Barracks, which ended up in the headlines last January, started.

In the process, the soldier behind the gate sustained a slight injury to his arm. According to the 97-page inquiry report drawn up by Judge Franco Depasquale, this constituted the only violent act by the immigrants prior to the scuffle with the soldiers.

Untrained soldiers called for action

The commander of the Armed Forces, Brigadier Carmel Vassallo, and Assistant Police Commissioner Andrew Seychell, who is responsible for immigration, were among the first to be informed. The order was soon out for all regiments to send to Hal Safi all the soldiers they could spare in order to help control the situation.

In fact, one of the main problems which was to contribute to the outcome a few hours later became evident immediately. The order, according to an officer, who remains unidentified in the report, was for "all available soldiers to come to the site", and not necessarily the ones trained to deal with the matter.

The same officer explained that at that stage he was not concerned with the "standard" of the soldiers called for action but rather wanted to form a platoon, which would provide a supporting role.

In fact, only C Company - which is made up of two platoons of some 70 soldiers - was prepared for the sort of action which followed.

The report says that the administration had planned to tackle this situation before the last referendum and election and that the Third Regiment had to have a special internal security (IS) platoon of some 30 soldiers. But since it was formed, this internal security platoon only received three, at most four, training sessions of three hours each. The problem, according to one of the officers in charge, was that whenever he planned a training session, the required soldiers would either be on sick leave or taken up with other duties.

On the day of the Safi incidents only seven or eight members of the IS platoon were available, so the officers decided to call in regular soldiers to fill in for them.

Most of the young soldiers called in did not take the order well, to the point that one of them said he had never even worn riot gear. A few had never even held a shield in their life. "I told them that I did not want to be part of the platoon and that I had never received training... I hadn't even worn the equipment not even as a recruit," one of the soldiers said.

Another said: "I clearly told the Sergeant that I did not want to form part... but he said that nothing could be done because that was the order."

The immigrants' requests

During the first hour or so the immigrants asked to speak to a number of people but they particularly insisted that they speak to the press, UNHCR representative Manca De Nissa and the Refugee Commissioner, Charles Buttigieg.

They were allowed to speak to the press. Mr Seychell called Mr Buttigieg at 8.30 a.m. to tell him about the protest and that the immigrants wanted to see him. Mr Buttigieg asked whether he should go there and Mr Seychell asked him to hold and wait for another call from him. But the call never came.

Mr Seychell called him later on to tell him that there were some incidents and asked whether he would be able to meet the immigrants the day after, on Friday. The refugee commissioner accepted.

The immigrants had agreed that if the people they requested to see showed up they would go back inside and all but five would stay on to speak with the representatives.

In fact, the report says, the presence of Mr Buttigieg could have changed the course of events. It questioned why he was left on hold but never asked to go to Safi, despite the fact that he was willing to. However, the report does not make any further comments on this point, despite saying that there was confusion among the officers on whether Mr Buttigieg was called or not.

By this time the soldiers started arriving at the barracks. They were kept in another part of the complex, where they could not be seen by the protestors. The idea was not to alarm them and precipitate the situation unnecessarily.

However, immigrants in the adjacent MT compound, who could also see what was going on in the pitch, saw the soldiers grouping. They started throwing stones and protesting, which led the Brigadier to order that the soldiers guarding them retreat for their own safety. Quoting an NGO worker, the report says that the MT compound was a hot pot and that people there were more rowdy and aggressive than those in the B Block.

To make things worse the fence of the MT compound is described by the report as "a joke."

The army knew this but did nothing to remedy the situation because they feared the immigrants would protest.

This point is important because this factor was deemed by Judge Depasquale to have precipitated the need for immediate action by the army.

"Had the 300 or so immigrants inside the MT compound decided to take their protest to the streets outside, the army would not have had enough people to control the situation.

"When the brigadier was informed that tension was rising in the MT compound and stones were being thrown, he realised that the situation would become incontrollable if the immigrants decided to go out. The urgency to resolve the situation in the pitch grew."

In fact, at this stage, after some hours of negotiations and attempts to convince the immigrants to go back inside peacefully, it was decided to force them inside.

On this decision, the report concludes: "In view of the negative attitude of the immigrants and the information the brigadier had with regard to what was taking place in the MT compound, the board is of the view that he could not have left the status quo prevail indefinitely."

Yet, the report also criticises the decision not to call in the Refugee Commissioner. Judge Depasquale notes that had the commissioner turned up the many immigrants who had shown they could be willing to go back inside would have had another reason to do so.

Just a few months earlier, in October, a similar protest was dispersed peacefully after the refugee commissioner and Mgr Phillip Calleja were called in.

How the Ruggier plan went down

The plan, once the decision to end the protest forcibly was taken, was devised by the head of the only section within the army trained for this sort of action, Major Ian Ruggier. The inquiry report refers to it as the Ruggier plan.

The plan was that soldiers from C Company, First Regiment were to take up position right opposite the immigrants who, at the time stood side-by-side along a low wall, about 30 metres long. These had to stay in line and behind them there had to be three, (some soldiers said four) "snatch groups".

The snatch groups had to come out from between the soldiers in the front line and "snatch" a few immigrants who were deemed to be ringleaders. The assumption was that once these leaders were in custody the rest would give up and return inside peacefully.

Since the area is quite large, trucks were placed on the sides, bumper-to-bumper in order to form a barrier. Moreover, a number of soldiers were assigned to these trucks. Their job was strictly that of "containment;" to hold any immigrants from escaping the area cordoned off.

On the other side of the fence, outside the centre, there were a number of soldiers and SAG officers who were there to hold any immigrant who tried to climb over the fence or break through.

Everyone agreed to the plan - even Judge Depasquale in his report says that it was acceptable. However, somewhere along the line something went wrong with communication.

The soldiers on the front line were given the order to move forward and started beating their shields in time with their step. The action serves both to keep the soldiers in step and also as intimidation. But the soldiers of the third regiment were not beating their shields as they should have been and were actually told not to by their direct superior.

At one stage Maj. Ruggier ordered these to beat the shields along the rest but for a moment a few of the soldiers were doing so while others were not. Some soldiers could be seen laughing, probably given the confusion, the report notes.

But there were errors of communication which had more serious consequences, the report reveals. As soon as the first line of the C Company started to close in, the soldiers on the side - contrary to the plan - attacked. They did not even have any handcuffs; in fact when they came in contact with the immigrants they could not grasp hold of them since their hands were occupied with their shield and truncheon. When the migrants refused to get up from the ground, where most of them sat, the soldiers started beating them.

Eight soldiers from the D Company who, according to the Ruggier plan, were assigned a containment role, were told by their officers to leave the shields in a Land Rover and "snatch" the ring leaders.

This, the report notes, was in complete contradiction to the Ruggier plan - but the report failed to identify the officer who gave this order. The officer testified that he "had decided that my men would leave the shields in the Land Rover because I knew that they would need to chase some of them and to hold them".

These men did not need the hand-cuffs which they had but the shields to protect themselves from any immigrants who tried to escape the cordoned-off area. Yet their officer told them to leave the shields in the vehicle.

This, the report remarks, continued to explain the state of uncertainty and disorder which reigned among the soldiers who were placed on the sides.

At one stage Maj. Ruggier tried to restore order. He entered the fray and was seen pulling soldiers back in line. However, eventually the operation ended up in a "free for all," the report states, with the soldiers beating the immigrants with truncheons, the immigrants reacting by throwing stones and a couple of them brandishing sticks used to support their makeshift banners.

Journalists near the soldiers outside the fence who did not have a direct part in the operation reported that the soldiers kicked immigrants who approached the fence and even egged on their colleagues who were beating the immigrants. "Smash that black man's face."

But - as with the responsibility for the failed Ruggier plan - no name was mentioned by Judge Depasquale in connection with these actions.

The one soldier identified

Overall, in fact, the report identifies only one soldier against whom it recommends that "further investigations be carried out", despite the fact that it acknowledges there were "incriminating" acts of excessive use of force by other soldiers, possibly by even some immigrants.

The case in question was documented by The Times through a photograph and was caught on tape by NET TV. The picture shows the soldier, who was wearing a helmet with no visor and was therefore recognisable, about to hit an already restrained immigrant on the head with a truncheon.

In his defence the soldier said that he thought it was the immigrant who had attacked him and the brigadier earlier and wanted to "pay him back".

But the immigrant he was referring to turns out to have been a different person of a similar stature. The immigrant who was on the floor, in fact, suffers from a serious case of rheumatism, to the point where he was jerking and screaming, when restrained, not to push away the soldiers but because he was in pain.

On the day, he had to walk slowly to the centre of the pitch because he was in a lot of pain.

Earlier in the report the judge says that a number of soldiers were portrayed in incriminating positions but that when questions were addressed to the soldiers on the matter, nobody seemed to remember anything.

The report actually goes as far as to say that it was very hard "to squeeze something believable" out of the interviewees but it does not identify anybody for lying under oath.

A number of soldiers also commented that they feared the immigrants because they had seen proof of their physical strength when they exercised. This and the suspicion that some may have been part of some guerilla group before they fled their country, coupled with the lack of training, could explain the clumsy behaviour of some of the soldiers, the report notes.

At one stage, for example, one soldier fell on the floor and could not get up because of the shield. He was helped up and probably feeling embarrassed in front of the other soldiers, the report says, started waving the truncheon in the direction of an immigrant.

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