A Maltese man who spent 15 years being wrung through Malta’s courts has been awarded €10,000 in moral damages – a sum his legal team say is nothing compared to the psychological suffering he was put through as they plan to file an appeal next week.
Christopher Mazzitelli was also awarded 5% interest from the day criminal proceedings should have ended – a sum of around €15,500 – as well as legal costs for a constitutional case. Legal experts believe his case could have been heard in six or seven years, half of what it ended up taking.
In the meantime, he became a father of two who lived under a strict curfew where he had to be home every evening by nightfall.
The cases started with weak claims over drug trafficking, and only became more shoddy over the years, something that even the Constitutional Court has come out and criticised itself.
Back in 2004, Mazzitelli started working with an Qormi mechanic, Malta Today reported. In his 20s, he had dreams to be a footballer but became injured and had to change plans. He was about two months into his new job.
Unfortunately for Mazzitelli – a cannabis user in his youth – the police had been tipped off to the alleged illicit activity of the Qormi mechanic’s two sons, who would often appear at their father’s garage. Malta’s Drugs Squad opened a surveillance operation on the garage in April 2004, and recorded several individuals visiting the garage, the sons and Mazzitelli.
Eventually, five people leaving the garage were stopped and searched and drugs were found. All five told police they had bought the items from Mazzitelli, who worked at the garage, when brought in for questioning.
He became one of four people arrested and prosecuted for being part of a drug-trafficking conspiracy, as well as aggravated possession and trafficking of cannabis, cocaine and heroin.
The ensuing court case and the way Mazzitelli was treated for the next 14 years shows just how dangerous it can be to end up in the Maltese justice system with anything to do with drugs charges.
Under oath, he said that he used to smoke cannabis when he was younger but said that he had never “touched” heroin or cocaine. He also said he had never trafficked drugs.
He first spent 20 days in preventative arrest in Corradino Correctional Facility, then spent 163 days under house arrest as the Attorney General said he wasn’t trustworthy and that he ran the risk of tampering with the case’s evidence.
His house arrest conditions were harsh: he could only leave home to go to court. After 100 days of this, he was given permission to visit his lawyer’s offices.
Eventually he was allowed out till 6pm.After three years of this, he put in an official request to remove his evening curfew – however, regardless of his request, the curfew was only lifted in January 2019, over a decade later.
In those years, Mazzitelli became a father and had two children. However, a 6pm curfew – which was eventually extended to 8pm, then 9pm then 11pm – meant any family outings had to be cut short to make it home in time.
In this request, Mazzitelli made it abundantly clear that his prosecutors had repeatedly told the court that they “definitively did not have any further evidence” to issue a bill of indictment since 2006.
However, it changed little, and he lived under a strict curfew nearly the entire time his case was heard in court.
During court sittings, the original witnesses police had relied on admitted they only mentioned Mazzitelli when being questioned by police because they were afraid of the Qormi mechanic’s two notorious sons. Criminal proceedings continued regardless.
A breakdown of court delays
A total of 75 sittings were held. Five sittings saw the presiding magistrate indisposed; 12 saw no witnesses appear; 11 where the prosecution indicated it had no further evidence or pointed to a witness as latest evidence and two where the legal acts hadn’t been sent in time to the attorney general.
Thirty-one sittings saw witnesses take the stand, and the court noted another 35 sittings featured the prosecution giving “rise to time-wasting”.
Overall, it took no less than seven years to compile all the evidence in this case before a bill of indictment was finally issued in June 2011.
Incredibly, the Attorney General requested life imprisonment with solitary confinement. Three years later, in 2014, it rescinded this over-the-top request.
That same year, one of Mazzitelli’s co-accused, Giovanna Pace, made a Constitutional reference, which she won in October that year, leading to the court ordering the separation of their two cases.
Finally, in February 2017, an entire 14 years after being charged, Mazzitelli testified for the first time.
By June 2017, his prosecutors admitted that they were not treating Mazzitelli as the “kingpin” in the drug trafficking operation in Qormi.
In January 2021, Mazzitelli was cleared of every charge except possession of cannabis, with the court saying he was only charged with possession of cannabis because he himself had readily admitted it. He received a €100 fine and was sent on his way.
Laying out his decision in the First Hall of the Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction, Justice Toni Abela blamed the Attorney General and Magistrate presiding over the compilation of evidence for the extreme delays.
“This delay was caused solely by the Attorney General who did not manage the Renvoi procedure wisely, with the required attention, commitment and with coordination between him and the police,” Abela said.
“After nearly seven years and two months of dragging his feet and hard-headedly insisting with the police that they present evidence when they had already declared their evidence exhausted several times, he ended up misusing his discretion and instead of sending the articles, he issued a bill of indictment in which he asked for the punishment of life imprisonment with solitary confinement,” he continued.
“At the end of the day… it was up to… the Court of Magistrates as a court of Compilation to ensure that these delays are not permitted. This court was duty bound to prevent the AG from abusing the judicial process,” Abela said.
The entire ordeal has laid bare the shocking prejudices often found in court when it comes to drug cases – even when there is very little evidence against the accused, it can still take the best part of two decades to clear one’s name.
A constitutional case has now been filed claiming Mazzitelli’s right to justice within a reasonable time frame was breached.
And his lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Maryrose Micallef have pledged to appeal since the compensation he received was nowhere near what he deserved for his ordeal. Their appeal will be filed next week.
But for Mazzitelli, who spent years locked inside his own, believed to be a criminal kingpin overseeing a wide drug trafficking operation, no amount of judges admonishing the courts for their lack of professionalism can ever make up for the psychological damage he was put through and years of his life he was forced to waste.