Cartoon by Ġorġ Mallia. First published in The Third Siege of Malta (2021).

Alex Dalli, who ran the civil prisons like a gulag and resorted to psychological torture and intimidation as a matter of course while prisoners under his watch committed suicide in unprecedented numbers, has lost libel suits filed against journalists who reported on his unlawful methods.

One libel suit concerned a report that he tortured inmates by tying them to a restraining chair in the prison’s central hall displaying them like prisoners of a mediaeval pillory.

He denied the claim saying it had been an “outright lie”. He mobilised the prisoner whom Malta Today reported Alex Dalli had restrained against the chair, to testify it wasn’t true, quite possibly abusing his power even further to force people in his care to perjure themselves on his behalf. Think about it. A prison warder producing a prisoner as witness that he didn’t torture that prisoner. It’s one notch down from the Inquisition securing confessions from women with black cats.

Alex Dalli also sued Illum over another report that he had put a handgun inside the mouth of an inmate as a form of imposition of discipline.

The court turned down the libel suits saying it found the reports about Alex Dalli’s behaviour to be substantially true.

So, what are the facts as we understand them now that the atrocities that used to be described as allegations have been established to be substantially true?

Firstly, Alex Dalli resorted to draconian methods of psychological torture and intimidation when he was prison director. I couldn’t tell you if these are prosecutable crimes though I suspect they are and certainly think they should be. They are at the very least short of the obligations of the state under the European Convention on Human Rights not to resort to torture under any circumstance.

Quite apart from prosecuting the perpetrator, there should be a public inquiry to determine whether this torture was at least in part the cause of some of the suicides under Alex Dalli’s watch because he should be held accountable for them if it is found that he is.

Secondly, Alex Dalli lied about what happened. He was mealy-mouthed in court so I cannot say with any certainty that perjury has happened. But he outright lied to journalists when they asked him whether the information they had about his abuses (I will no longer describe them as alleged) had been correct. If he lied to journalists, he lied to the public.

Thirdly, Alex Dalli sued journalists about claims he knew to be true, which means these were SLAPP suits, intended to intimidate and punish journalists simply for doing their work. He did this when he was (as he remains) a state official which makes this a state-perpetrated SLAPP suit inflicted on journalists who were investigating unlawful conduct in a state institution entrusted with the care of vulnerable people. For prisoners are vulnerable to the violence and torture of their guards.

Fourthly, Alex Dalli is no longer prison director, but he is a state official with access to even more vulnerable people with even less access to the protection of a free press and the courts: migrants in the no man’s land between the Sahara Desert and the deepest waters south of these islands.

With these facts established, we know that the only consequence Alex Dalli has suffered for his brutality and violence inflicted on people entrusted to his care is losing libel suits he started.

This is just not enough. The fact that nothing happens now and that nobody asks for the obvious to happen – his dismissal, a public inquiry, the resignation of Byron Camilleri who protected him and continues to protect him, and a clear and public appraisal by the attorney general on whether prosecution is desirable – shows that tyranny rules this country inside and outside its prison walls.