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Medals of dishonour

A cardinal accused of covering up sexual abuse, a Greek politician on trial for money laundering and a high-powered Sicilian politician now behind bars for links with the Mafia all figure on Malta’s honours list.

The government has just decided to strip Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi of the Xirka Ġieħ ir-Repubblika awarded to him in 1975 and the honorary membership of the National Order of Merit in 2004.

Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat suggested that deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali should meet the same fate and also be stripped of his National Order of Merit honorary membership, awarded to him in 2005.

A look at the foreign dignitaries Malta has honoured reveals that Col Gaddafi and Mr Ben Ali are not the only individuals on the list with suspect credentials.

Kim il-Sung, perhaps the most notorious member on Malta’s honours list, was made an honorary member of Xirka Ġieħ ir-Repubblika in 1985. A year earlier, Li Xiannian, at the time President of the People’s Republic of China, had also been honoured. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Mr Li gave strong support to the military suppression of the protesters.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, was named Companion of Honour to the Order of Merit in 1995. In 2010, the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, accused Cardinal Sodano of blocking a Vatican inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse committed by the late cardinal of Vienna, Mgr Hans Hermann Groër.

Although Cardinal Schönborn – considered by many as a leading candidate for the Papacy – was chastised by the Vatican for publicly criticising a fellow cardinal, his allegations against Cardinal Sodano have never been officially denied.

Cardinal Sodano has also been forced to grapple with similar accusations by the US-based National Catholic Reporter, which alleged, among other things, that his friendship with Fr Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, extended to discouraging an inquiry into sexual abuse by Fr Maciel. In 2006, following a lengthy inquiry led by the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Maltese Mgr Charles Scicluna, Fr Maciel was found guilty of sexual abuse and removed from active ministry.

Another honorary member of the National Order of Merit, Salvatore “Totò” Cuffaro, is serving a seven-year sentence for having aided and abetted members of the Mafia. Mr Cuffaro, a former president of the region of Sicily, was made an Honorary Companion to the Order of Merit of Malta (with Breast Star) in 2004. Investigations into his links with the Mafia had started a year earlier.

Ion Iliescu, former President of Romania, was made a Companion of Honour to the Order of Merit (with collar) in 2004. His two tenures as President were tainted by several scandals, most notably the mineriad of June 1990, when miners summoned by Mr Iliescu descended on Bucharest and savagely attacked protesters, killing seven and wounding hundreds.

Aleksander Kwaniewski had risen to the Presidency in 1995 defeating Lech Walesa. Poland’s Supreme Court subsequently found that he had lied about his academic qualifications, claiming to have a Masters degree when in fact he had none. He was made a Companion of Honour to the Order of Merit (with collar) in 2002.

Marek Ungier, who, at the time, headed President Kwaniewski’s office, was awarded Ġieħ ir-Repubblika in 2002. In 2007, a Polish lobbyist testified that Mr Ungier and a number of other politicians had secret Swiss bank accounts in which to funnel bribes for the privatisation of state-owned firms. Charges could not be pressed due to the lack of a double taxation agreement between Poland and Switzerland. Such an agreement was only signed in 2010.

In 2009, in an unrelated case, Polish prosecutors charged Mr Ungier with pocketing PLN100,000 (€25,000) intended for Mr Kwaniewski’s re-election campaign. The trial continues.

Former Greek Defence Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos was made an honorary member of Xirka Ġieh ir-Repubblika in 2002. In April this year, the Greek Parliament unanimously voted for Mr Tsochatzopoulos to be investigated in relation to a submarine procurement deal worth €1.6 billion. Last month, the Greek Supreme Court ruled that, although Mr Tsochatzopoulos could not face fraud charges due to a lapse in the statute of limitations, he ought to be tried for money laundering.

Other recipients can also be mentioned.

Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Libya and a confidant of Muammar Gaddafi, was made an honorary member of the Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika in 1976. He last came to Malta in April, when he tried to secure the return to Libya of two Mirage fighter jets, which had been brought here by defecting pilots. He was arrested by the National Transitional Council last week.

Abdelwaheb Abdallah, Tunisian Minister for Information in Mr Ben Ali’s regime, was made a Companion to the Order of Merit (with Breast Star) in 2005. He was placed under house arrest in January following the toppling of the regime.

It is customary for heads of state and top government officials to exchange honours following reciprocal state visits.Malta’s honours system was set up in 1975 with the Xirka Ġieħ ir-Repubblika, Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika and Midalja għall-Qlubija. In 1990, it was expanded with the introduction of the National Order of Merit.

Although honours are only conferred on Maltese citizens, foreign citizens can be appointed honorary members of three out of the four honours. The Midalja għall-Qlubija is reserved for Maltese citizens.The honours lists reveals an exponential increase in the number of foreign citizens made honorary members since 1994, when 20 individuals were honoured. The previous high water mark was 1991, when four awards had been made. This increase in the number of honorary memberships has, with the exception of a few years, continued unabated. Between 2000 and 2010, an average of 25 honorary memberships were conferred each year., with 2004 being a record year, when 51 foreign citizens were honoured.

The increase cuts across all four national honours. The Xirka Ġieħ ir-Repubblika, Malta’s top honour, saw the ranks of its honorary membership grow by 52 between 2000 and 2010. By way of comparison, 15 honorary memberships were bestowed in the 1990s.

Awards given over previous decades


Ġieħ ir-Repubblika National Order of Merit Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika Total
1975-1979 2 * 0 2
1980-1989 2 * 0 2
1990-1999 15 51 12 78
2000-2009 52 231 1 284
2010 - 1

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