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Justice for those who can afford it

Remember Osman Omar, the 31-year-old Somali who was charged with complicity in a gang-rape back in 2007 – a charge he persistently and vehemently denied? Early DNA testing results corroborated his version of events and failed to link him to the crime. Despite numerous protestations of his innocence – not to mention the overriding presumption of innocence supposedly afforded to all accused regardless of skin colour – he was remanded in custody indefinitely, his copious bail requests ignored.

Unfortunately it’s a system which is extremely easy on the wealthy

Three years later, still in custody and awaiting trial, he was ‘released’ on bail, subject to stringent conditions, among which a hefty €6,000 deposit. Freedom was clearly beyond his financial reach and Omar had no choice but to stay put. Further futile attempts to reduce the bond and another two years later, the court finally set bail at €4,000.

After five years awaiting trial, Omar finally landed his ‘get out of jail’ card when two British benefactors coughed up the cash. His bail conditions were so restrictive and inhumane, with just 150 minutes of outdoor time daily, and a very tight half-hour timeframe within which to report to the police station, that it was almost impossible for him not to breach his bail conditions and only a matter of time before he found himself back in jail.

Finally, in November 2012, after six years locked up in preventive custody, Omar walked out of jail a free man after he was acquitted of all involvement in a crime he had already done time for.

Stories like these anger me no end – the persistent denial of freedom notwithstanding the overwhelming absence of concrete proof or causal relationship; combined with the bogus granting of bail, subject to the most unrealistic and inhumane conditions, thereby rendering it even more unjust than outright denial.

There are plenty more stories where that came from and not all involve indigent dark-skinned immigrants. I have sat through enough bail hearings to know how the system works or doesn’t, even when it comes to locals.

Landing bail first time round is like gold-dust and nothing short of miraculous. Because although we like to talk about the presumption of innocence and equality before the law, we’re well aware, that they’re more myth than prevalent.

If you carried out a random Google search, you’d find a series of comparatively minor offences involving lap-top and other petty thefts, where our courts systematically denied bail.

In far more serious cases, I seem to recall Silvio Zammit, the circus organiser-cum-lobbyist, struggling to pay the bail bond which was originally set at €25,000. Zeba Moussa was remanded in custody for over two years because he couldn’t make his €10,000 bond.

And the same fate was met by Kenneth Gafà who is apparently still unable to meet the €15,000 deposit.

Courts are generally wary of letting suspects loose, for fear that they’ll interfere with the court process, abscond, not turn up for trial or commit another crime.

Bail is a sum of money deposited in court which seeks to balance the interests of the accused with those of society, on the understanding that should a person breach the conditions set, he immediately forfeits both his freedom and the deposit. It presupposes that people who risk losing money will comply with the court process.

Unfortunately, it’s a system which is extremely easy on the wealthy on which it is sparingly used, and firmly stacked against people of little means, who are thus constrained to serve a de facto sentence before trial. Or else be pressured into filing guilty pleas out of sheer desperation.

I hung around for Tancred Tabone’s bail hearing because I had a hunch that this time round things would pan out differently.

I’ve always maintained that the best-quality justice is reserved for those who can afford it.

I do not expect Tabone to pay for the sins of a frequently unfair, unyielding and largely ambivalent system or to suffer the same fate others have and continue to suffer.

Tabone’s been in and out of the Police Depot and loose on the community for a while, so he’s already had plenty of time to potentially tamper with evidence. Denying him bail on that score was a non-starter.

That said, when granting bail, I did expect the court to demonstrate the same fears and dish out the same sort of treatment that other accused people face on a daily basis. At the very least, Tabone’s bail conditions ought to have reflected the seriousness of the offence.

Faced with tattoos, piercings, abject poverty, certain skin or a certain ‘face’, courts are frequently suspicious, dismissive and mistrusting. Naturally, we saw none of that. Bail was granted, no questions asked, except from Tabone, who inquired whether he could travel abroad.

No eyebrows were raised, no alarm bells went off, no fear of absconding was registered. The court, ever so civil and polite – as it ought always to be after all – was almost embarrassed to tell Tabone he was to sign at the police station twice weekly, at whatever time was convenient. No curfew was imposed on the well-to-do magnate. Bail was set at a shocking pittance.

The court might have done well to ask itself, whether the ridiculous, even laughable sum of €3,000 and its potential forfeiture – loose change as far as Tabone is concerned – is likely to deter a tycoon, who stands accused of fraud, from absconding.

And if the charges are well-founded and Tabone really did make shiploads of illicit cash, is it entirely unlikely that he may have feathered his nest in some faraway land which has no extradition treaty with Malta? How is it that it’s the people who barely have two pennies to rub together who are invariably targeted as high-risk absconders?

The only purpose this disparate court decision might have served is that of further stripping our justice system of its credibility.

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