The prosecutor had been reading the charges for almost an hour. He droned through the cumbersome lists, the company numbers, the formulaic repetitions that cannot be described any more helpfully than boring. He stopped periodically to sip some water. Next to him, an assistant prosecutor followed on her print out. Sometimes the paging on the version he was reading did not match her and she looked up, concerned he might skip a vital line.

No one else was listening. They were hearing. Magistrate Rachel Montebello, stern, imperious, languid, followed the text closely on her script. The lawyers for the defence fidgeted and crawled through Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta hunting for lacunae they hadn’t yet spotted and which could come in handy. Some 40 men and women spread around the trial chamber occupying every space – where the jurors normally sit, and their substitutes, and the clerks, and the standard desks for defence attorney which normally sit two now with 9 lawyers huddled shoulder to shoulder.

From the balcony of the trial chamber, I could see the entire scene. At my feet the dock where the accused normally sit, a glorified cage, hip high, humiliating but ventilated. Today it was empty. There were too many accused to fit in that box. They sat them down under the viewing gallery in the seats normally reserved for the public, consuming oxygen in silence, unseen by the wrongly named viewing gallery, even from my front row seat. The accused amounted to a public on a busy court day, two dozen, nearly all men in their late 40s and early 50s.

On the prosecutor droned his voice, sometimes failing, now softening into vagueness, almost a melody on the train station Tannoy. And then he cleared his throat. I looked up to see if it was for another sip of water. But the prosecutor wanted the room to hear this one. It wasn’t the most grievous charge or the one that carried the longest prison sentence if the accused were to be convicted.

‘The Republic of Malta,’ the prosecutor pronounced solemnly, ‘charges Joseph Muscat who as prime minister and MP between 2013 and 2020 solicited or received bribes.’ I’m paraphrasing this down to its essence. This is not the legal language used. Believe me, I’m being helpful here. It’s a bit like reading you the side notes of The Pardoner’s Tale because the original is impenetrable. For me it is. I understood like you would understand poetry in a foreign language, from the tone and the solemnity on the face of the poet.

Here was an answer to all the talk about the vindictive harassment suffered by Joseph Muscat. It wasn’t the activists who signed the request for an inquiry that were charging him. It wasn’t the journalists who asked him pesky questions. It wasn’t the Nationalists who are envious of his power and success. It wasn’t Simon Busuttil, or Robert Aquilina, or Daphne Caruana Galizia, or a magistrate whose brother said a bad thing about him.

It was the Republic of Malta that was charging him. And for a moment there, that phrase, Republic of Malta, meant something. It was the idea of lawfulness that has survived his government and came out the other side that was now accusing Joseph Muscat of besmirching it so vilely. The Republic of Malta was looking into Joseph Muscat’s eyes to denounce him, but before doing that it was separating herself from him, distinguishing at last Malta from Muscat. Malta was not Muscat. Not him. Not his acts as the head of her government or as a member of her Parliament. Malta could not be Muscat because Malta was accusing Muscat.

It was a moment of realisation that transcends even the probability of his eventual conviction. It was an act of divorce, a tearing apart between Muscat and his hostile take-over of Malta, his possession of her, his absorption and capture of her, his utter identification with her. At 12 noon the bells of St John’s were heard inside the trial chamber. They came as a knell, a dirge for that creepy slogan from long ago, when crowds chanted “Malta tagħna lkoll.” Malta turned back and answered at last, laconically, determinedly: “Malta mhux int.”

There was another moment of stark realisation in the midst of the droning lists on the charge sheet as it was being read out. The Republic accused him and his accomplices of fraud and misappropriation, of theft and of holding stolen goods. There’s no theft without a victim. The charge sheet did not speak about the cancer patients whose cure was defunded to divert funds into the pockets of the alleged fraudsters, to be turned into impossible sports car leases and earrings that could feed a hungry village. It did not speak of the people dying on a medical waiting list. It did not speak of the tax payers whose money was siphoned off.

It spoke of the only victim that technically has a claim: the government of Malta.

It was also a significant distinction. Joseph Muscat the prime minister may have been the head of the government but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t steal from the government as one would from somebody else. He may have squatted on the top seat but he was but an employee of the government, a paid official, capable, as he is indeed accused of having done, of stealing from it.

In criminal cases this is usually the point where victims speak up and ask to be allowed to be heard during the case against the alleged perpetrators of their suffering. Who is going to speak for the victim if the victim is the government of Malta? Robert Abela, he who has sought to discredit the heaps of evidence piled up in a mountain of boxes and desk top computers and servers in wrap around Sellotape at the magistrate’s feet today before anyone’s had a chance to look inside?

If everyone who might ever have been sick or anyone healthy who has paid taxes to tend for the needs of those who can’t afford private healthcare is a victim of this swindle, who of ‘everyone’ will be in court to argue for the victims? That’s a question for another day. The court had already thrown out Repubblika’s application to represent the victims in court. Repubblika is not the victim, we were told. The government is. There was no one to ask rhetorically, who’s the government’s victim?

At length the charges were read out and it was time to hear the defendants I could not see, squatting beneath my feet, make their plea. I couldn’t look at Joseph Muscat, the first to be called to stand. I resorted to the second best option, glancing intrusively to my right at the front pews of the benches on the viewing gallery reserved for the relatives of the defendants. It was organised like a wedding. On the bride’s side the press; on the groom’s, sitting in front, Michelle Muscat and her escort for today the nicely turned out Jason Micallef.

I looked at them, almost willing Joseph Muscat’s voice through their steely glare at the magistrate. Muscat spoke the names of his parents and confirmed, voicelessly, they are still living. As his voice quivered, I wondered how proud they must be. He then declared he was born in Pietà, another profoundly ironic moment as he must have recalled he was born in the hospital – St Luke’s – that ended up as collateral when Vitals needed to scrape enough money to pay salaries because Ram Tumuluri would run away with his millions.

And then he quibbled with the magistrate because she misunderstood his answer to the question about his occupation. She must have expected him to say ‘scrounger at the people’s expense’. He declared instead, without being asked for the irrelevant information, that he held a doctorate in economy and management as if this was a job interview. He must have been to a few lately and mistook the occasion.

The magistrate, utterly indifferent to the academic boundaries of Joseph Muscat’s training, dictated inaccurately that he had answered he was a Finance Consultant. Muscat sounded insulted, as if fraud, money laundering, bribery, and criminal association were par for the course for him. But call him a Finance Consultant and he’ll get very annoyed.

Having corrected the definition of his job, such as it is, such as it may justify the grotesque payments poured into his and his wife’s bank accounts – the ones yet known of – he proceeded to declare he was “absolutely not guilty” to the charges he was being faced with. “Absolutely” is no qualifier. It is not more emphatic than saying he was “not guilty”, not clearer, not better. But Muscat wanted to make a point and the brevity of this opportunity to speak in a microphone was not quite what he was used to.

This wasn’t one of those Karl Bonaci or Manwel Cuschieri interviews where he gets to threaten people with wiping them with a tsunami if they speak badly of him. The magistrate wouldn’t have afforded him one of his self-indulgent perorations. So, he put as much colour to his necessarily succinct answer as he could by adding the non-sequitur “absolutely”, like an overcompensating teenager.

For him there was no more time to hold the room. How strange it must have felt. Joseph Muscat hasn’t been in many places where he listened for others speak for hours and he was limited to declaring a handful of words. He will need to get used to it. The magistrate reminded him and those accused with him that having pleaded they now needed say no more. They need not answer any question put to them. They need not speak for themselves. If they did though, anything they said could be used against them. Muscat will have a long time to think about that.

The moment must have gone over quickly. Worked up to pronounce his innocence, no sooner he stood to convince us of it, he had to sit back down to hear what in his mind might be all the less eloquent versions of “not guilty” his co-accused would declare: Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri …

Raspy, breathless, shaky pleas of ‘not guilty’ as they focused their minds on their imaginary enemies, and maybe, when they allowed themselves, on the real ones too.

I left the hall at that time to give an account to my Repubblika colleagues of the events in the room.

I walked again outward through the anteroom outside Hall 22, this largest courtroom reserved for trials by jury and reduced today to the prosecution of a former prime minister and some half of his large gang of alleged co-conspirators in the grand theft at a country’s expense.

There were policemen milling around now. Before the session started this had been a crowded space where two unlikely sets of people were forced together by the security services: journalists like me, and the people who would be facing charges today, their lawyers, their hangers on, in Muscat’s case, his wife and security guard.

It was like accidentally stumbling into the wrong conference room in an Atlantic City hotel. This was a reunion for crooks of all ranks, dons and consiglieres, caporegimes and soldiers, button men and errand boys. Adrian Hillman dipped his nose in a book, pretending to himself, for only he cared, that he was still an academic. He was rudely interrupted by Keith Schembri who walked up to him like a lost long friend, grinning, happy to see his comrade. They had an African handshake, the sort skateboarders do rather more authentically.

I watched, perched behind the balustrades of the court staircase, Konrad Mizzi come up the steps to join this re-enactment of Castille Christmas Drinks circa 2016. If you hoped for an ashen faced, quivering and whimpering school boy, you’ll be disappointed. He smiled inanely, riding those steps like Rocky at the Philadelphia Public Library, congratulating himself and grinning at no one in particular in that smug and self-satisfied way he used to open those press conferences announcing the immortality of Air Malta.

Like the Queen, Joseph Muscat waited for all the other defendants to show up before he came in what he must have hoped was the last possible minute. He came up the steps holding his consort’s hand and surrounded by a posse of lawyers, guards, and sundry sycophants.  From behind him someone called him “mafia”. I looked up to see who it was but whoever was doing it must have been a practiced ventriloquist. “Mafia,” the teasing voice said again.

Joseph Muscat could have ignored it. If he chose not to, you’d have expected him to deny the charge. But that’s not Muscat. He won’t deny he’s a mafioso. What would you think of him if you did? “Mela bħalek” he said, twice, in the general direction of the taunting voice. That’s Muscat all round. Tu quoque. I’m bad, he moonwalks with a shaky hip. And then he finishes the thought pointlessly. So are you. Iss ar’e’ ħej!

Joseph Muscat the man with the smart quip, which isn’t all that smart after all.

Muscat saw Mizzi through the back of his head and turned back to greet him. He had that rictus smile from the ice bucket challenge still shuddering through him. He made it a point to ignore Schembri. Schembri wouldn’t have that. He walked up to Muscat. Muscat greeted him. Zombies in love.

Then the Muscats stood, their back to the wall, realising with horror that this party wouldn’t get going just because they were here. They had to wait. Muscat’s security and his state-paid PA stood loyally by him. Jason Micallef, the page boy, completed the entourage. But the dark memories of their school-days made this an awkward reunion for the Muscats. No one else came up to them. No one asked how they were. No one kowtowed or paid tribute to them. It was a crowded room. It was a lonely place.

Not even the crowd greeting him as a hero outside the court building just before Muscat got in was enough to give him anything like the morale boost he needed to avoid fumbling through the exquisite awkwardness.

That crowd outside.

Well, they shouted, you can give them that. Not quite enough to disturb proceedings inside the court though. If anyone thought they needed to hire an army to threaten magistrates, prosecutors, and reporters and scare them away from doing their jobs, they’d have needed 100 times the crowd that showed up today.

On the whole the Cuschieri rent-a-crowd was well behaved. I walked right through them to get into the court building in the morning because the police insisted I walk in through the front door. I tried a side entrance and was turned away. I worried protesters might find my presence off-putting or offensive or even intrusive and provocative. As it happened they were looking for Joseph Muscat and I should consider myself lucky I look nothing like him. Balder. Hairier. Less pronounced veins. Less millions.

They weren’t just waiting for Joseph. They loved the warm up acts of his preceding accomplices. I saw a photo of a woman cheering Keith Schembri like a 15-year-old at the feet of Paul McCartney some time before Keith Schembri was born. In the press area in the courtroom, we started a ‘caption this’ competition for that photo. “Keith Schembri fan thanks him for embezzling money from cancer care fund,” won the prize.

Yes, you’d have to be amazed at the self-defeating pathology of cheering on people whom the Republic of Malta is charging with stealing the taxes you pay while you’re denied the healthcare you need. Given the average age of the crowd quite a few of them are likely candidates for the denied services that were meant to be provided in those hospitals.

But, alas, stupidity is not a crime. Money laundering and bribery are. There’s shame for us all that it has come to this. That a prime minister and so many of his accomplices are now in the dock is an indictment too for the nation that elected him and continues to support the party that still protects him.

Today was a cause of pride too, however. Because to the moral emptiness, the crime, the illegality, and the amorality, the crowd outside the court that was but an older version of that crowd that gather in front of Pilatus Bank to celebrate Labour’s victory in 2017, there was a response today.

Legality responded, silently, irrepressibly. There was the civic commitment of journalists who exposed what those criminals covered up. There was the engagement of my colleagues at Repubblika that pushed against all odds for this investigation when the police had looked away. There’s the magistrates, the officers, and the prosecutors, who stood with courage today behind that mountain of boxes of evidence and claimed it proves Muscat is a criminal.

The crowd outside the court avoided the burning sun and stood in the shade under the trees to the side of St John’s Cathedral. They stood around the Great Siege Memorial trying to look as stern and as strong as the Sciortino figures towering above them.

From a window high up in the court building I looked down at that crowd putting pity from my mind, and I saw behind them a picture of Daphne Caruana Galizia. She will have heard them profess their idolatrising confidence in Muscat’s innocence. And I thought I saw her smile. I thought I saw them scratch their necks as they heard a woman whisper to them, “I told you so.”


PS: I apologise I haven’t been writing. Things have been going on in my life that have made it difficult for me to concentrate long enough to do this work. I’m sorry. I’m trying to find my feet but sometimes life has a way of pushing you around. I hope today’s effort is good enough.