Birdlife Malta members in court for ‘possession of protected species’ – Fiasco as Police had concluded there was no case

Three Birdlife members photographed holding birds which had been shot to highlight illegal hunting on the island. Some of the birds were dead others were collected for veterinary treatment. Never the less the Federation for Hunting insisted the conservationists should be prosecuted for being in possession of protected species.

The case was instituted on the insistence of the Federation for Hunting and Conservation (FKNK). Magistrate Anthony Vella started hearing the case against Birdlife members Fiona Burrows, Nicholas Barbara and Caroline Rance who are pleading not guilty.

A fourth member – Rupert Masefield – was not present in court as he was not notified of the sitting and has since left the island.

Magistrate Anthony Vella has expressed dissatisfaction with the way the police managed the prosecution of four Birdlife activists.

The conservation group activists had been charged with possession of protected birds after they published a picture of themselves posing with illegally shot protected species, back in September.

In what many feel is a farcical inversion of the facts, Fiona Burrows, Nicholas Barbara, Caroline Rance and Rupert Masefield were then charged under a 2006 law intended to stem illegalities by hunters and trappers.

The police had previously refused to prosecute the activists, arguing that the Birdlife members were highlighting illegal hunting and lacked the criminal intent required for the offence. However this position changed last July following a request by Joe Perici Calascione, president of hunter’s federation (FKNK).

The FKNK had argued that the law forbids possession of the species of birds – which the BLM activists were photographed with – and requested they be prosecuted. Magistrate Aaron Bugeja had upheld the FKNK’s request.

Barbara, Burrows and Rance attended today’s court sitting. The fourth activist, Rupert Masefield no longer lives in Malta, and was not notified.

“Perhaps we should issue a European Arrest Warrant,” quipped the magistrate, dryly.

The magistrate berated the police inspector for not having notified Masefield correctly, a fact that lead to confusion on the manner in which the activists were to be arraigned, or whether they could be arraigned at all.

It appears that the court had been told there would be one case with four accused, while the prosecution was of the belief that there would be four separate cases.

“I want to have the correct acts in front of me…if there are four accused and only three appear before me, I cannot do anything,” protested the magistrate.

The magistrate, prosecution and defence then discussed at length whether the three activists present in court should be arraigned individually or together.

The technical legal issues were apparently resolved and the court continued to hear testimony.

Police Inspector Ramon Mercieca testified how the ALE received an email on 9 October 2012 from the FKNK requesting action to be taken against Birdlife, on the basis of the press release and photo dated October 6th 2012.

Inspector Mercieca said that he had looked into the matter and had concluded that there were no grounds on which to issue charges against the accused. He had informed FKNK CEO Lino Farrugia that the police did not intend to prosecute.

Subsequently on 29 January 2013, the police received another email from the FKNK’s lawyer, Kathleen Grima, once again requesting the police press charges.

“What if I were to tell you that the birds in question were actually live, injured birds?” asked the activists’ lawyer, Steven Tonna Lowell . The inspector admitted that it was a possibility, as Birdlife often did rescue animals injured by hunters.

Inspector Mercieca informed the court that the police had been reluctant to press charges initially, due to the fact that a dead marsh harrier had been exhibited on TV show Xarabank by a Birdlife activist in the year 2000. The Police Commissioner at the time, George Grech, had concluded that there was no criminal intent, deeming the act to be one intended to raise awareness amongst the public about illegal hunting.

Court expert Stanley Gatt identified the birds in the photograph as kestrels or lesser kestrels, a honey buzzard, a marsh harrier and a night heron– all protected species under law – and will present a report at the next sitting.

The FKNK are also expected to be testifying when the case continues on 14 January next year.

 

This article was first published on 25 November in ‘Malta Today’ and was written by Matthew Agius

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