I issued this statement to the press after watching these comments Owen Bonnici gave to journalists. This link takes you to the Times of Malta report.
In comments to journalists Owen Bonnici said today he was “always within the law” in respect of the protest site in front of the court building in Valletta. He based this on the fact that the court recommended protesters should be careful not to damage the memorial and that, when the case was first filed, the court did not accept my request for an injunction to stop the government’s actions while it decided (as in fact it did) whether Owen Bonnici was acting illegally.
Owen Bonnici is missing the point of the decision. The court found that Owen Bonnici personally breached the fundamental human right to freedom of expression. Mine, because I filed the case but also every other protester who participated in this campaign including Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family.
He was most definitively not within the law. He was outside it. He may have “thought he was doing what was best,” as he told journalists today but as the court told him yesterday, he was acting illegally and sowing division in the country.
When Owen Bonnici says today that he ordered the daily removal of the memorial “to bring unity in the country” he shows complete contempt for the law and for human rights. And he shows contempt for the judgement handed down yesterday which says exactly the opposite.
Owen Bonnici’s excuse (which Robert Abela mouthed yesterday) that the court’s decision is somehow to his credit because “institutions work” is completely unacceptable. That’s like a thief saying it doesn’t matter if they rob your house because there are courts that could find him guilty.
The matter here is not about the government following the law now that a court has declared that Owen Bonnici was breaking it. The matter here is that Owen Bonnici should never have breached our fundamental human rights knowing full well what the law on free expression says and being repeatedly advised by MEPs, the Council of Europe, journalists, free speech organisations and us protesters that he was breaking the law.
He, with the cabinet’s blessing, kept suppressing our human rights anyway.
There is something disturbing in what Robert Abela said yesterday about his decision upon his appointment to stop the suppression of our protest. He said he “saw where the judgement of this case was going to”. How did he see that? How does the prime minister know ahead of time what a judge is preparing in his sentence? Has someone from the judge’s office leaked the information to the prime minister? So much for separation of powers.
Or did Robert Abela know all along that the government had no hope to win this case because he knew Owen Bonnici had been breaking the law? If that’s what he thought and he felt it was inevitable that we would win this case, why does he insist Owen Bonnici should not be fired?
Yesterday’s court decision was not an ordinary human rights case where an individual persuades a court that a law of the country goes against human rights or because some low-level administrator applied a law unfairly in breach of human rights.
This was a case where what was examined was Owen Bonnici’s direct decision, applying what he claimed was his discretionary authority to order public employees to act in a certain way: in this case removing flowers and candles left by protesters at a memorial every day, sometimes several times a day.
Saying this was a “collegial” decision of the entire cabinet at the time does not make the decision legal or pardonable. As the Nuremberg trials taught us, superior orders are no defence to a breach of law. In any case in court Owen Bonnici assumed responsibility for it and witnesses testified they got their orders directly from him.
He cannot both say he was doing what he thought was for the best and at the same time kick upstairs the responsibility for his decision by saying he was following cabinet’s orders.
So, here’s another reason why Owen Bonnici needs to resign. While still in office he can continue to give the impression that he acted properly and should face no consequence. As he does that the repetition of the illegal acts he ordered and committed remains likely. If the government believes Owen Bonnici did nothing wrong in censoring brutally our protest, it follows the government believes it is free to brutally censor any protest it disapproves of.
Robert Abela said in his first week in office that he would give top regard to good governance. He reversed his own decisions when he ‘realised’ he was not living up to that high standard. Or at least that was his narrative. In reality he backtracked on Konrad Mizzi when even his party colleagues kicked up a fuss.
Now Robert Abela is retaining in his cabinet a minister who has been humiliated by a court of constitutional jurisdiction, for his behaviour chastised for being “surreal”, “divisive”, “borne of pique” and “absurd” and most fundamentally in breach of the fundamental right to free expression.
Now Owen Bonnici is saying we’re not to worry because there are independent institutions that can tell him he was wrong. And yet, when they do, he still says he wasn’t wrong.
Owen Bonnici must go.