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MaltaToday 24 March 2021 MIDWEEK

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10 maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 24 MARCH 2021 OPINION RIGHT: for the purposes of this arti- cle, I'm going to assume that you've all watched the 1987 movie 'The Untouch- ables': directed by Brian De Palma, and starring Robert Deniro, Kevin Costner, and Sean Conne… … hang on a sec. It's just occurred to me that some of you might not even have been born in 1987 – still less, been old enough to watch what was rated, at the time, a '16' movie. And I can picture you all now, as you sit there scratching your heads in bewilderment: 'Kevin Quoi? Rob- ert De-who…?' So tell you what: run along and use your millennial magic to stream the movie on- line… then come back when you've all finished watching it. Oh, and take notes while you're at it, too: I'll be asking ques- tions when you get back. [Approximately two hours later] Back al- ready? Good. OK, so here's question number one: how many crimes would you say were imputed to the character of Al Capone (Robert De- niro) in that movie? Let's see now: there's the bomb that blows up the liquor store (little girl and all) in the opening scene; there's the guy who gets his head bashed in with a baseball bat at the dinner table; there are any number of people – including innocent bystanders – machine-gunned down in the streets, during multiple shoot-outs with police/ rival gangs… then there's the seven men murdered in the Valentine's Day massa- cre (only referenced, in the film)… not to mention the running of an illegal boot- legging/protection racket throughout the 1920s (which formed the main context for all those other crimes). In brief: it is probably not even possible to quantify the exact number of (mostly violent) crimes attributed to Al Capone: not even in this movie; let alone in the en- tire course of his actual mobster career. This brings us to question two: how many crimes did Al Capone eventually face criminal charges for… resulting in an 11-year sentence at Alcatraz? Just the one, as it happens: tax evasion. And without meaning to trivialize that particular crime – seriously, though: how could Al Capone even sleep at night, knowing that he was depriving the Chica- go municipality of funds it so desperate- ly needed to finance its social services? – I think we can all safely agree that 'tax evasion' simply pales into insignificance, compared to the sort of blood-thirsty criminality Capone had got away with for years (and ended up arguably getting away with altogether). Yet that, it seems, was also the only of- fence that Al Capone could legally be 'touched' by at all. And while some of the reasons are rather obvious – unsur- prisingly, no witness was ever willing to step forward and actually testify against a dangerous, vindictive and well-connected mass-murderer – others are less immedi- ately apparent. For instance: back in 1931, the police could not file specific charges on grounds of 'racketeering' or 'extortion', simply be- cause those activities did not constitute crimes under contemporary legislation. For that, America had to wait until the emergence, in 1970, of the 'RICO Act'… and it's worth pointing out that the ac- ronym itself – 'Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations' – was also a thin- ly-disguised reference to 'Caesar Enrico Bandello': an earlier cinematic interpre- tation of Al Capone, played by Edward G. Robinson in 1931's 'Little Caesar'. But let's not digress. The point is that American anti-mafia legislation is itself consciously indebted to what, I suppose, can only be termed the 'Al Capone Syn- drome': i.e., the dilemma of having to re- sort to minor charges, as compensation for the police's inability to ever nail a criminal over much more serious charges. And I'm not exactly the first to spot a vague resemblance with what seems to be happening right here, right now, with the criminal charges against Keith Schembri – and 10 of his associates – last Saturday. Indeed, the analogy had already been made, in various comments here and there, when Schembri was arrested (on separate corruption charges) way back in September 2020. Then as now, there was a palpable feeling that the crimes he was be- ing called to account for, may fall far short of the ones he is suspected to actually have been involved in. There are, of course, limits to just how far that analogy can be stretched. Some of the crimes imputed to Schembri are indeed very serious: for the record, they include allegations of money-laundering and corruption, implicit in the Panama Papers revelations; and also the suspicion, supported by the (admittedly hearsay) testimony of two witnesses so far, that he may even have been involved in the plot to murder Daphne Caruana Galizia (or, at minimum, that he tried to obstruct the course of justice afterwards). Even so, however, we are still far away from 'Scarface' levels here. (To put that another way: Keith Schembri would have to bash quite a few heads with base- ball-bats, to even get close to Al Capone's historical status..). There is a flipside to that, however. By the same token, the charges Schembri is now facing in court – though still 'minor', compared with what many so people be- lieve he should be facing - are in them- selves far more severe than those brought against Al Capone in 1931. This also forces us to consider other ways in which the two scenarios diverge slightly. Let's start with the obvious. If, in Al Capone's case, the police did not press other criminal charges beyond tax eva- sion… it was because – quite simply – they couldn't. It certainly wasn't because of any 'reluc- tance' on the investigators' own part (oth- erwise, they wouldn't exactly have both- ered with the tax evasion charges, either). No: those charges against Al Capone were clearly the result of long years of patient, painstaking – and probably highly frus- trating – police determination to some- how 'nab him', in one way or another: however long it took. But is that really the case with Keith Schembri? Have the police so far really limited themselves to the only course of action that could possibly have been taken against him? It is, admittedly, a lot less clear-cut. First of all, we have to distinguish between the various allegations levelled against Keith Schembri over the years. So far, the police have only publicly ruled out further legal action against him – or anyone else, for that matter – in one of those aforemen- tioned (alleged) crimes: the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. And at the risk of repeating earlier arti- cles, we have also heard the police's justifi- cation for that decision. It revolves around the 'inadmissibility', in court, of any of the evidence so far accumulated. Leaving aside a few niggling doubts I may still personally have, on that score – if my memory serves me correctly, some of that evidence also included a hand-writ- ten note, dictated by Schembri to Melvin Theuma, to be delivered to Yorgen Fenech in hospital… and even if it only points to- wards collusion after the murder: well, it's not exactly 'hearsay', is it? Nonetheless, fact remains that evidence for any direct involvement in the murder itself is, at best, rather tenuous. As such, the police may have had perfectly good reasons of their own to disregard it (in which case: well, it would be kind of help- ful to also explain those reasons to the rest of us…). The other money-laundering allegations, however, are somewhat harder to dismiss. Last we heard, a magisterial inquiry had finally been initiated into the Panama Pa- pers only in April 2019 – after three years of being consistently stalled by the Justice Ministry. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn't been finalized yet… and if it takes as long as the inquiry that has just been concluded, we may still be many long years away from any other arrests or ar- raignments. But that doesn't mean it won't happen, either. And with up to 11 people now be- hind bars on at least one case - including some who are privy to all the secrets of the nebulous Keith Schembri underworld - it may only be a matter of time before some of those other suspicions are revealed to be well-grounded, too (or not, as the case may be). At this point in time, then, I would say it's premature to conclude that Saturday's arrests are indeed an echo of the distant Al Capone dilemma. But that may yet change: depending on how assiduously, from now on, the police actually try to solve those alleged crimes, once and for all… or, conversely, how 'reluctantly' they proceed. And let's face it: there is undeniably a perception out there, that the police – and authorities in general – have deliberately dragged their feet on all such investiga- tions in the past. To be fair, this was most- ly directed at the Police Force under the stewardship of former PC Lawrence Cuta- jar. (It was, in fact, only after a change in Commissioner that charges against Keith Schembri – for any offence imaginable – even became possible at all.) From this perspective alone, Saturday's arrests seem to mark a welcome departure from that particular script. All the same, however: those same charges are – like the ones against Capone – unlikely to ev- er quell that niggling popular suspicion, that… well, justice may not really have been served at all, in this case; or at least, not to its fullest potential. For that, we would need to patiently follow all those remaining loose threads, right down to the bitter end: regardless how many seemingly-interminable in- quiries, and/or frustrating dead-ends, it will take. In a word, we would have to be like Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. (You know: killing all the bad guys, while somehow also miraculously saving the baby in the pram…) Keith Schembri and the Al Capone syndrome Raphael Vassallo

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