Property investors Leif Ahlstrom and Ann-Marie Spaak have decided to quit Gozo. But not before giving scathing views of a system that the Maltese often take for granted, writes Ivan Camilleri.
At the end of 2010, Leif Ahlstrom and his wife, Ann-Marie, decided that it was time for them to stop working and retire to a peaceful and tranquil place.
Selling their small but highly profitable real estate rental business in Sweden, they started looking for the best place to settle down for the rest of their lives and just enjoy life.
After lots of research, they chose Gozo.
“We had heard through friends that this little island is a beautiful paradise. When we arrived, first for a short holiday, it was all we were looking for. Beautiful scenery, short commuting times, friendly people and a warm climate,” Ms Spaak recalled.
Investing their hard-earned cash into two luxury apartments – one at Fort Chambray and the other at Kempinski – life initially was exactly what they had dreamt of.
It was almost farcical, if this wasn’t such a serious case happening in a courtroom of a democratic country
“Long walks, many new friends, good restaurants and the tranquillity away from the hustle and bustle we were used to before,” the retired Swedish businessman said.
However, in 2013, things changed overnight. Returning home one evening from a dinner party, they found their place had been ransacked and someone had got away with most of their valuable possessions.
“I immediately suspected it was an inside job as the door was not forced open and entry was gained from the shaft. My handyman immediately came to mind and I informed the police,” Mr Ahlstrom recalled.
The police arrested Anthony Fenech, the Kempinski’s handyman, who had been caught with someone else trying to exchange Swedish kroners into euros at a Xagħra foreign exchange bureau.
In a statement to the police, the two admitted they had carried out the burglary.
“So far so good, I thought. At least justice will be done. Never, but never, did we imagine what would happen from them onwards.”
About nine months later they were finally summoned to give evidence. “We were at the courts at 9am – exactly at the time indicated. When we arrived, we were told to wait in a cold room until someone called us. After some five hours, at 2pm, I was called in to give evidence.
He said his wife was called and she told the magistrate that she needed an interpreter as she could not express herself very well in English.
But the court could not provide an interpreter and the case was put off. A week before the following sitting, Mr Ahlstrom called the Gozo courts to check that an interpreter had been found.
“To my amazement, a top court official told me they didn’t know anything about it and I should contact the consulate. I did, and the consulate had not been informed about anything. When I called the court back, the official suggested I should get an interpreter myself! That is what I did, even though this all sounded very odd.”
For the second sitting, Mr and Mrs Ahlstrom once again turned up on time – at 9am – together with an interpreter. This time their wait was of some six hours.
But when they were finally called in to the court room, the magistrate berated them angrily for failing to turn up earlier – insisting their names had already been called – and for trying to contradict him.
“I was stunned! Not even pigs in a pigsty are treated like this,” said Ms Spaak.
The sitting was again postponed because the defence lawyer was not present.
At the next court sitting six weeks later, “the court did not even ask the interpreter we provided who he was or whether he had any qualifications to do the job. No one was checking him and he could have invented all that he was translating.
“It was almost farcical, if this wasn’t such a serious case happening in a courtroom of a democratic country,” Mr Ahlstrom recalled.
The case dragged on for three years and the verdict came last July: the accused and his accomplice were found not guilty of robbery but only of dealing in stolen goods. They were sentenced to community work in their own hometown, Għajnsielem.
According to the court, there was not the required legal proof to conclude without any doubt that the accused had committed the burglary.
“I couldn’t believe it,” an angry Mr Ahlstrom told this newspaper. “The police and my lawyers had told me this was a sure case. I have an e-mail from Fenech, which I passed on to the court, in which he excuses himself for robbing me!
“A lawyer friend of mine told me: ‘This is Gozo – an island where everything can happen’.”
I see so many things on a daily basis that should not happen but people keep quiet and accept them as long as they are not affected
The Attorney General has now filed an appeal.
But the whole saga has seriously dented the Swedish couple’s relationship with their adoptive island: they have put their two residences up for sale and will be returning to Sweden.
“I just realised that this is not the place to be. Apart from a justice system which puts third world countries to shame, I realised that the society in general is so rotten,” Mr Ahlstrom said.
“We have now lost complete interest in living in Malta as I have concluded that if you don’t have the right connections you can forget any form of justice.
“In Gozo, the police know everyone so they give a parking ticket to me but not to the car parked illegally behind mine. It’s incredible! I see so many things on a daily basis that should not happen but people keep quiet and accept them as long as they are not affected.
“For me this is wrong. It’s time for us to pack our bags and leave. Farewell Malta.”