Forgive, forget, remember
John F. Kennedy, the iconic American President once advised his people: “Forgive your enemies but never forget their names.” I would humbly tweak this quote a little bit by suggesting to forgive the names of our enemies, to forget their names, but to remember their actions.
It is in this spirit that I suggest to rewind our collective memory to what happened in one particular week but which had long been coming. I am referring to the despicable acts perpetrated by a fistful of uncontrolled thugs with the implicit connivance of part of the Malta police force which seemed it was in place with the sole aim of protecting the untouchables and to persecute the innocents.
These few words may help you remember what happened between November 30 and December 5, 1986 – 30 years ago – during which time law and order catastrophically collapsed and which culminated in a most tragic way.
I myself was only an eight-year-old boy but nonetheless I vividly remember what was going on as I used to keep the relative newspapers, which I still do to this day. Furthermore, my involvement in the Nationalist Party, particularly in my present position, brought me so close to our local representatives spread around Malta from whom I heard so many personal recollections about the Tal-Barrani incidents and the barbarous murder of Raymond Caruana.
It was Sunday, November 30, 1986. The PN had applied through the normal channels to organise a mass meeting at Żejtun. The police, on the advice of the then prime minister, had withdrawn a permit they had already issued, on the premise that it was too dangerous to maintain law and order, and in the public interest.
The PN contested this decision and the Constitutional Court authorised the issue of a permit for a meeting by the PN to be held in Żejtun on Sunday, November 30.
Admittedly I was so young when these incidents happened that I would hardly grasp the significance of all those shenanigans. Not so young, however, when, finally, the court gave its definitive sentence on a number of people arraigned in connection with crimes committed in the Tal-Barrani riots.
That sentence was given a whole 16 years after the despicable acts happened and so I was now myself in the thick of things within the PN.
I would not mention names and I won’t be describing what really happened but I choose to stick to the court’s own descriptions in its sentence and as reported in the Times of Malta (September 6, 2002).
The report said that three men were conditionally discharged for a year for their part in the Tal-Barrani riots when a group of masked men joined special police in blocking PN supporters from entering Żejtun for a political meeting.
Three of the accused were found guilty of seriously injuring Rose Gauci, whose nose was bitten, and Salvu Debono who was shot in the knee.
They were also found guilty of slightly injuring 10 men and five women and committing the crimes in the context of an assembly of three or more people, two of whom were carrying firearms to create terror and alarm.
These three were also found guilty of causing more than Lm500 damage to 15 cars and one van and causing Lm2,675 worth of damage to public property. They were also found guilty of wearing a mask or disguise in public, uttering obscene or indecent words and blocking roads.
The magistrate remarked that he had found the three convicted men’s explanations “ridiculous” particularly since the evidence against them was overwhelming.
The sentence referred to the Constitutional Court’s decision. However, notwithstanding this authorisation, some people were already working on blocking the roads with stones and rubble during the night of November 29, and the authorities did not seem to take any action, not even when the work continued in their presence the next morning.
When the PN supporters were moving towards Żejtun, a small group of men tried to hold them back but eventually retreated behind a truck. The fully equipped Special Mobile Unit had moved in, followed by over a hundred people, some of them masked and armed. The mounted police brought up the rear. The police sprayed tear gas, shots were fired and people were injured, some seriously.
The magistrate found the defendants’ explanations weak and their claim that they had left the scene before the incidents started, unbelievable.
A very strong indictment against the police force came when the magistrate noted how the events took place with the tacit approval of the police who blocked the road, fired shots and tear gas and basically allowed armed and masked men to assist them.
This unbiased abstract of events doesn’t need any comments. But that disastrous week in Maltese political history had to finish in even more tragic circumstances.
An unpretentious 26-year-old PN activist, Raymond Caruana, was killed at the Gudja PN club on Friday, December 5, 1986, when he was hit by several shots fired from a car driven past the club. One bullet hit Caruana in the throat, killing him.
As if this was not enough, the same police who a few days earlier were responsible for the Tal-Barrani debacle, went one step further and organised a wicked frame-up on Peter Paul Busuttil, falsely accusing him of Caruana’s murder.
In reality, this case is still unsolved to this very day.
The morale of this ugly story from our past may be summed up by another quotable quote by Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana taken from his book The Life of Reason: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Let’s commit ourselves never to forget what we’d been through and, likewise determined, not to allow a repetition of it.
Jean Pierre Debono is PN assistant secretary general and election candidate, seventh district.