1930 attempt on Lord Strickland’s life
During the 1930 general election campaign, Malta’s Prime Minister, Lord Strickland, was at loggerheads with the ecclesiastical authorities. On May 1 the Archbishop of Malta, Dom Maurus Caruana, and the Bishop of Gozo, Mgr Michael Gonzi, issued a joint pastoral letter declaring that it would be a mortal sin to vote for Strickland and his candidates, and for those who support him or his party. On April 17 the Governor, General Sir John Du Cane, had dissolved the Legislative Assembly.
On Friday, May 23, Lord Strickland went to the Auberge d’Auvergne in Kingsway, Valletta, which then housed the law courts, to attend a sitting of the Court of Appeal, which was hearing a case about the electoral law. While Strickland was walking along one of the corridors of the law courts, three shots were fired, allegedly at Strickland.
The shots had gone astray. The bullets hit a wall and the ceiling and had remained lodged there. Strickland took the matter calmly and went inside the courtroom to read his morning paper.
Police Sergeant Duminku Depares and Constables Giuliano Caruana and George Vella, who were near Lord Strickland, intervened, and the gunman, 43-year-old Ġanni Miller, was apprehended and disarmed.
The news of the assassination attempt caused an enormous commotion and quickly spread throughout Valletta.
In a matter of minutes a crowd rushed to the law courts and when it was learned that Strickland was unhurt a section of the crowd began shouting “Long live Strickland and down with Mizzi”, referring to Nerik Mizzi, the co-leader of the Nationalist Party and Strickland’s political opponent.
However, when Dr Mizzi heard what had happened he sent Strickland a message of sympathy, strongly condemning the attempt. As a gesture of goodwill, Strickland, accompanied by his daughter Mabel, visited the Nationalist Party printing press in South Street to thank Dr Mizzi personally.
Strickland received many messages of support, foremost among them those from King George V and Archbishop Caruana and Bishop Gonzi.
Ironically, about three years earlier, Miller, who at that time was serving a 15-year prison sentence for inciting soldiers to lay down their arms during the1919 riots, had petitioned the Governor for an amnesty. The prison sentence was reduced, and when Strickland came to power in 1927 Miller was released from prison.
Meanwhile, some weeks prior to the assassination attempt, Miller was accused of threatening Dr John Bugeja and Tancred Borg of the Constitutional Party.
These events led the court to appoint Professor Edgar Ferro and two other doctors to draw up a report about Miller’s mental health; the court experts reported that Miller was of sound mind.
When on May 27, 1930, Magistrate E. Bartoli started hearing evidence about the assassination attempt, the prosecution, led by Superintendent Alfred Borg, who had been with Strickland at the time of the shooting, and legal procurator Augusto German requested the court to continue hearing the evidence behind closed doors on the grounds that the attempt was part of a conspiracy.
Legal procurator Bertu Mizzi objected, but the court upheld the prosecution’s request. Dr Mizzi was assisting defence counsel Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, popularly known as Il-Gross, who was not present in court when the magistrate gave his ruling.
Soon after Miller’s attempt on Lord Strickland, it was alleged that Police Inspector Carol Saliba had produced a paid informant, Toni Bugeja, from Marsaxlokk, to make a sworn statement to the effect that some time before the assassination attempt, he (Bugeja) had been encouraged by Dr Mifsud Bonnici to try to kill Lord Strickland.
The affidavit was sworn on June 17, 1930, but Inspector Saliba denied the allegation that he had in any way incited Bugeja. Dr Mifsud Bonnici also denied the allegation in his regard.
Miller’s trial by jury opened on November 18, 1930 and Giuseppe Mifsud, a witness for the prosecution, testified that the accused used to grumble against Strickland because he had lost his licence as a lotto receiver during Strickland’s administration. Another witness testified that the accused was promised a job at the Central Hospital and blamed Strickland when he did not get it.
Moreover, Borg testified that some hours before the assassination attempt Miller had told him that Strickland’s life was in danger. It also transpired that Miller had purchased the gun and 25 rounds of ammunition one or two days before the assassination attempt.
The defence argued that the accused had not aimed at Strickland and that the experts appointed by the court had confirmed that the gun was pointed upwards when it was fired.
By eight votes to one the jurors found Miller guilty of attempted homicide; he was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.
A few days after the assassination attempt, the May 28 edition of Il Progress, the organ of the Constitutional Party, reported that five months before the attempt on Strickland’s life, some had started conspiring against Strickland after a certain individual, referred to as Mr X, had returned to Malta from Egypt.
Il Progress alleged that Mr X had met a person who ran a grocery shop in St Ursula Street, and persuaded him to kill Lord Strickland and his deputy, Sir Augustus Bartolo, the education minister.
It was also alleged that Mr X promised the grocer that if caught after the murders he would be sent to the mental hospital and eventually released when the Nationalist Party returned to power.
The Nationalist Party denied the allegations and challenged the editor of Il Progress to divulge the names of Mr X and the grocer, but the names were never revealed.
Three years after Strickland’s assassination attempt, Inspector Saliba’s name was once again mentioned when the Police Commissioner informed the then Nationalist Minister of Police that he was holding a special inquiry as he had received information that during the previous Strickland administration Inspector Saliba had offered to murder Lord Strickland, when on or about June 1, 1930, he broached this idea to legal procurator Bertu Mizzi, at the time a Nationalist member of the Legislative Assembly.
When disciplinary proceedings were instituted against Inspector, Mizzi testified that Saliba had approached him and hinted that he could arrange to eliminate Strickland for £20.
Mizzi described Saliba as an opportunist who tried to be on good terms with the political party in power in order to achieve his ambitions.
Saliba flatly denied ever making such a statement to his accuser and produced a large number of witnesses to put Mizzi in a bad light.
In his report the Police Commissioner concluded that Saliba had actually made the statement but “it was nothing more than a piece of bluff”.
The findings of the inquiry were submitted to Governor Sir David Campbell, who five months later informed the commissioner that, after careful consideration, he had come to the conclusion that the charge against Inspector Saliba was not proven and it should be dismissed.
The Governor also directed that Saliba should be given a serious warning which should be noted in his record of service.
Strickland’s assassination attempt had also been mentioned at the time in the House of Lords.
During question time on November 7, 1934, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Plymouth, said there was no proof that the attempt was part of a conspiracy to eliminate Lord Strickland.
Asked about the special remission of 15 years from Miller’s 1919 prison sentence, Earl Plymouth replied that the Governor of Malta had acted on the recommendation on the Maltese minister responsible.