Kidney patient behind bars turns to President for justice
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Kidney patient behind bars turns to President for justice

Jailed on cannabis charges, Christopher Bartolo hopes a rarely-cited law can help

A prisoner whose kidney condition is rapidly deteriorating while behind bars has asked President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca to grant him bail while he waits for an appeal about his case to be heard.

The request cites a rarely-used section of Malta's criminal code, which allows the president to grant a person bail in "special cases", subject to any conditions the president wishes to impose.

It also highlights the problem with having an attorney general who is both public prosecutor and legal advisor to the state, noting that should the president seek legal advice on the matter, she would have to get it from the office which had prosecuted the case in the first place. 

Christopher Bartolo, 36, was sentenced to a five-year jail sentence in April on cannabis trafficking charges. He was caught with 167 grams of the drug and arrested right after spending six hours hooked up to a dialysis machine at hospital. 

Mr Bartolo.Mr Bartolo.

Mr Bartolo suffers from failing kidneys and received a kidney transplant some years ago. He has said that he used cannabis to self-medicate, with the plant easing his pain and allowing him to sleep more effectively than pills prescribed to him. 

Police interrogating Mr Bartolo got him to admit to having trafficked 1.5kg of cannabis, and that admission led to him being locked up for a five-year stretch.

But a constitutional court last month found that by denying Mr Bartolo access to a lawyer during an interrogation, police had violated his right to a fair hearing.

The court ordered that his statement to police be struck from the record and gave him the chance to reverse his admission of guilt, which it described as a "Hobson's choice."  

Despite the ruling, Mr Bartolo remains locked behind bars, with the courts having rejected his request to be granted bail while the attorney general's appeal against the ruling plays out in the courts. 

Since entering prison, his donated kidney has failed and Mr Bartolo has been forced to return to dialysis treatment. 

With the courts having turned him away, Mr Bartolo's lawyers have now delved deep into Malta's criminal code and turned to the Office of the President for help.

In a letter sent to President Coleiro Preca's office, Mr Bartolo's lawyer Franco Debono noted that his client had rigorously stuck to bail conditions when his criminal trial was underway, and said that Mr Bartolo would gladly abide by any bail conditions imposed on him by the President. 

Dr Debono cited Mr Bartolo's precarious medical condition and the requirement for special care and dietary needs, saying that as well as a legal anomaly, this was a "humanitarian" case. 

He also noted the contrast between Mr Bartolo's cannabis-related sentence and national discussions about the legalisation of medicinal cannabis products and talk of reforming drug laws. 

The letter offers an ideal illustration of the oft-cited concern with having a dual-role attorney general, as is the case in Malta.

The attorney general, who had prosecuted Mr Bartolo and who was appealing the constitutional ruling in his favour, could not also advise the President on whether or not he should be granted bail, the letter noted. 

"We're not asking for a pardon," Mr Bartolo's partner told Times of Malta. "We just want Chris to be allowed to stay at home and get the care he needs while the courts decide on his case. These things can take time, and he's not getting any healthier while in prison." 

What does Article 574 (2) of the Criminal Code state?

The article in question grants the President of Malta the power to grant people bail in special cases. It states: 

It shall also be lawful for the President of Malta, in special cases, to grant temporary release to any accused person who is in custody for any crime or contravention, subject to such conditions as the President of Malta may think fit to impose. In default of observance by the accused of any of such conditions he shall be liable to be re-arrested forthwith.

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