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Magistrate is accused of political bias

Judge rules magistrate interpreted law wrongly

Anglu Farrugia

Anglu Farrugia

Labour deputy leader Anġlu Farrugia yesterday accused Magistrate Audrey Demicoli of political bias when she acquitted a man of vote rigging in the March 2008 election.

The magistrate’s judgment was overturned by an Appeals Court, which found the restaurateur in question guilty of threatening to sack one of his employees if she did not vote for the Nationalist Party. The restaurateur was fined €800.

Speaking at a party activity in Rabat, Dr Farrugia did not name the magistrate but referred to the judgment, which she delivered in a case that he had reported himself.

He said people expected judgments to be “according to the law”.

“Without saying who her (the magistrate’s) father is or explaining his role in the machinery and strategy of the Nationalist Party, the magistrate acquitted this contractor,” he said.

“I spoke in Parliament and said that a judgment has to be fair and according to law. This is the responsibility of every member of the judiciary. I insisted on an appeal because we cannot go for another election and have this abuse,” he said.

Magistrate Demicoli’s fa­ther, Saviour, has been a PN activist for several years and ran the party’s organising committee in the 1970s and 1980s. A former teacher, Mr Demicoli also represented the party on the Birkirkara local council.

The appeal judgment was made public on Saturday by Dr Farrugia during a debate on Xarabank with his Nationalist counterpart, Simon Busuttil. As he did during the debate, Dr Farrugia asked whether Transport Minister Austin Gatt, who is responsible for the party’s electoral office, would resign over the verdict.

The former police superintendent had brought the matter to the fore shortly after the 2008 election when he called on the Police Commissioner to investigate whether voting documents had been bought by Nationalists ahead of the election, which saw the PN win with a wafer-thin 1,500-vote majority.

He alleged that hundreds of votes could have been sold and gave the police a three-page report detailing cases with names and the alleged amounts traded.

At least one case, that of 44-year-old Pierre Bartolo, owner of Papillon Caterers, was tried in court and he was found guilty of threatening two employees and ordering them to vote for PN.

During the court hearings, it was claimed that two employees – Kristylee Bezzina and Anthony Zammit – had been instructed and threatened over how to vote in the election by their employer.

In the case of Mr Zammit, also known as Is-Sei, who claimed that he had been threatened, three employees had described him as unreliable and the magistrate felt that it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that he had been coerced.

Ms Bezzina had testified in court that Mr Bartolo had threatened her. She had also said that she planned to vote PN anyway. On the basis of this, the magistrate concluded that there had been no influence.

The magistrate said she believed that the fact that someone encouraged another person to vote or provided a means of transport to go to vote could not be seen as being an illegal influence or corrupt practice, otherwise the parties’ electoral offices, which regularly organised such transport, would also be guilty.

In an appeal judgment, however, Mr Justice Michael Mallia ruled that the magistrate had misinterpreted the law under which Mr Bartolo had been charged.

Mr Justice Mallia said that Ms Bezzina’s intention to vote PN in any case was “irrelevant” in respect to the charge against Mr Bartolo who had clearly exerted undue pressure on his employees to vote for the Nationalists.

Moreover, the judge noted that Mr Bartolo had driven Ms Bezzina to the polling station to vote during working hours when Ms Bezzina had decided not to vote.

Mr Justice Mallia ruled that the Magistrate’s Court could not have reasonably arrived to the conclusion it had reached and, so, upheld the appeal, finding Mr Bartolo guilty of exerting illegal pressure and fined him €800.

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