A woman who had been sentenced to four years imprisonment by the first court after being found guilty of being an abusive mastermind of a fraud operation in 2014 has been let off with a three-year probation by the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Graziella Apap had been charged with coercing her intermittent on-again-off-again lover Joseph Meilaq into going door to door, asking for donations in the name of Dar tal-Providenza.
“I pleaded for her to start working so we could settle down, but she told me she’d kill me and throw me out at sea if I didn’t do her bidding,” Meilaq told the first court.
Prosecuting Inspector Jonathan Ferris presented what had been said in the first court, mainly that Apap was sending Meilaq out to ask for money from unsuspecting, usually elderly residents, from localities like Sliema, Cottonera, Tarxien, Qormi and even Victoria in Gozo at one point.
Meilaq usually wore a cap, hiding his face, and asked residents for an amount between €100 and €300, sometimes more. He impersonated a volunteer for Dar tal-Providenza, sometimes telling his victims that they had won a monetary prize and had to pay a small deposit before collecting it.
“I didn’t need to do this because I was earning €1,200 a month, gross, working with the garbage trucks,” Meilaq told the first court. “But I had to because [Graziella] was asking for €100 a day and she would beat me if I didn’t do it.”
He added that Apap had a tendency to beat him in public but she never joined him on his door to door endeavours because she “wasn’t cut out for it.”
She relied solely on his “talents” because he was a recidivist who had done this kind of thing before, asking people for money in the name of charities.
Meilaq denied that he had returned to this criminal behaviour on his own accord and said that he was doing it for her.
Apap, on the other hand, denied forcing her lover to collect money.
Inspector Ferris explained how it was difficult for the police to get a hold of Meilaq even though he was identified on several CCTVs after 34 police reports were filed. It was difficult because he had been living out of various hotels, mainly the Topaz, the Marina Holiday Complex, and the Dolmen.
Meilaq admitted that he had financed these stays with the money collected in the name of Dar tal-Providenza when we was arrested on 5 May 2014 at a Chinese Restaurant in Bugibba.
Director of Dar tal-Providenza, Fr Martin Micallef, was shown receipts purportedly given to Meilaq’s victims when they handed their money and said that the charity would never collect donations door to door.
Apap was arrested shortly after Meilaq was detained when he kept invoking her name.
The first court heard how Apap has four children who were not in her custody but in foster care.
At her home, Police found televisions, tiger statuettes, and other furniture. She denied that these were bought recently despite the Police finding receipts at her home showing their recent purchase.
Meilaq claimed that these were bought with the money she asked from him. “I bought her a washing machine too, a Playstation 4, televisions, furniture,” Meilaq claimed, adding that he was aware that she was seeing a Syrian man at the time but that he had to help her because he loved her.
The court heard how Apap sometimes paid Meilaq some sexual favours.
When the two parties met at the conference room of the Police Headquarters in Floriana, shortly after their arrest, Apap started swearing when she spotted Meilaq and picked up a chair. “If it hadn’t been for two officers who held her back, she would have smashed it on him,” Ferris said.
Several people testified against Meilaq in the first court—most of the time, he told victims that they had won a competition but they had to first pay around €200 to claim their spoils.
Apap’s probation officer Maryrose Farrugia presented a Social Inquiry Report saying that Apap kept bad company who had first introduced her to prostitution at a fairly young age.
The report, however, said that she was showing a character of reformation and that three of her four children were now in her custody.
The Appeals Court, presided over by Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera, said that the first court did not pay much attention to this fact and that Meilaq’s testimony was the only proof against her person.
“That fact that Meilaq bought a washing machine among other things for Apap with the money he collected doesn’t mean that she forced him to,” the court said, adding that Meilaq was, after all, a recidivist and that he had evinced this kind of behaviour beforehand, collecting money from unsuspecting persons using this fraudulent technique of impersonating charities.
The court deemed Meilaq’s testimony inadmissible and argued that it wasn’t possible for him to hand Apap €100 a day and buy her expensive things while simultaneously living in hotel rooms.
The court did however feel that Apap knew where the money for the items Meilaq was handing her was coming from since she had told Police that the purchases weren’t recent even though they were.
She had also exhibited violent behaviour towards her former lover when the two met at the Police Headquarters in Floriana.
“The court must consider the positive Social Inquiry Report and the defendant’s reformative character. She’s also a mother and her children would be prejudiced if she’s imprisoned,” the court said.
Apap’s “excessive” sentence of four-year imprisonment was repealed by the Appeals Court and she was instead let off with a three-year probation.
Dr Franco Debono and Dr Marion Camilleri were defence counsel.
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