After the arrests - Ranier Fsadni

Photo: Jonathan Borg

Photo: Jonathan Borg

What should Monday’s arrests change for the government’s law and order critics, assuming the arrests will lead to successful prosecutions for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination?

A lot, if you’ve spent the last seven weeks playing an armchair Sherlock and getting it wrong. Nothing, if you haven’t. If, that is, the basis of your criticism has been that the assassination was an illustration of how growing institutional deterioration, for partisan advantage, can have hideous consequences.

Weak institutions need not always lead to murder but they do lead to fewer restraints on criminals. And that always has nasty consequences.

You might need reminding of all that if you watched Joseph Muscat’s press conference on Monday. While saying nothing, he exuded everything: law and order does exist in Malta, and I’m on top of it. Everything is under control.

That piece of political theatre works in Muscat’s favour, if you always conflated criminal responsibility for the crime with political responsibility for the amplified risks Caruana Galizia was exposed to. It also works in Muscat’s favour if you’re Adrian Delia, and you allowed yourself to be bamboozled into declaring, a day before the arrests, that the police were at sea.

However, suppose you’re concerned about the weakness of autonomous institutions. Let’s say you wonder about whether we do have an effective separation of powers. Let’s add that you do know that, in those countries where the police truly are autonomous and authoritative, it’s the police that handle press conferences to explain ongoing arrests; only a truly supine police commissioner would let any other authority do it instead.

In that case, then Muscat’s stagecraft will only have reminded you of how increasingly elusive statecraft has become in our neck of the woods.

It would be naive to pretend the Prime Minister didn’t make the announcement to claim political credit for an operation that should have nothing to do with politics. But it would also be naive to expect he could have risked doing otherwise. What? Leave it in the hands of the police commissioner or the police minister? Given their recent public performances, the odds have to be they’d have managed to blow the occasion.

In Monday’s display, therefore, there were in evidence the two things that have been concerning critics of the state of the rule of law: the weakness of the police force and its readiness to concede space to governing politicians.

The display, of course, demonstrates only weakness and maladministration. It doesn’t prove a ‘collapse of the rule of law’. That was always a misleading phrase.

Have Monday’s arrests changed your expections? Have they made not even a mite of a sliver of an iota of difference?

It suggests anarchy, a Mad Max dystopia (or perhaps simply Libya). Whereas we’re still safe in the streets, even at night (though where you live has begun to make a difference).

I’ve always preferred to speak of steady deterioration in the forces responsible for rule of law. The surveys optimistically held up to show confidence don’t actually do that.

Take one survey recently published by this newspaper’s sister publication. Just over half the public having faith in the law courts? Just over two-thirds trust the police? That means that when the police walk down a street filled with busy Christmas shoppers, every third person doesn’t quite trust them.

Still, that’s not anarchy. But the people misleadingly talking about the collapse of the rule of law (apart from  one or two oddball MEPs) are really talking about the breakdown of a working principle, not of social order. It’s the principle that we are all equal before the law.

Alas, the arrests do nothing to change that concern. Even as the police were gearing up to swoop down on the suspects, news was surfacing of questionable behaviour by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri.

His wife has been reported to be running a company offering services to the super-rich who buy Maltese passports. So far (Tuesday morning), questions by the press have been ignored. But the relevant service is no longer advertised on the company website.

Yet surely there are obvious conflicts-of-interest questions that need to be addressed, not ignored.

Then there was another story concerning the Schembri commercial group’s audited accounts. They show such a tiny margin of profit (under one per cent of sales) that industry and banking experts stated that such a company should never be granted a loan under those conditions.

In other words, if the accounts are true, then it’s worrying: the Prime Minister’s chief of staff is financially vulnerable and at the mercy of those loaning him money. If they’re not true, then there’s even more to worry about.

Either way, the press reports should not be ignored by Schembri. And, if the law were applied impartially, the reports should trigger official investigation (if nothing else, to lay suspicions to rest).

But we know what happened to previous reports by the country’s financial intelligence agency into similarly suspicious behaviour by Schembri.

Have Monday’s arrests changed your expectations? Have they made not even a mite of a sliver of an iota of difference?

There’s your answer. You don’t expect everyone to get off scot free. You don’t think all investigations are politically motivated. You expect some people to be held to account and investigated. But you also think it depends on who they are and what they’ve done.

Well, that’s not rule of law. It’s governance without the necessary restraints. Sooner or later, it will catch up with all of us.

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