BirdLife Malta activists acquitted of possessing protected birds they had attempted to save: common sense prevailed.

Two BirdLIfe Malta activists found not guilty of possessing protected species they were trying to save.

In what many felt to be a farcical inversion of the facts, the conservationists were charged under a 2006 law intended to stem illegalities by hunters and trappers
Two BirdLife Malta activists walked out of court this with their freedom intact, after a court found them not guilty of possessing protected species this morning. In proceedings instituted on the complaint of the hunter’s federation (FKNK), Nicholas Barbara, Fiona Burrows, Caroline Rance and Rupert Masefield had been charged with having been in possession of protected birds in October 2012, after they published a picture of themselves posing with the illegally shot specimens in September last year.

But in what many felt to be a farcical inversion of the facts, the conservationists were then charged under a 2006 law intended to stem illegalities by hunters and trappers. Charges against Rance and Masefield were subsequently dropped. This morning, lawyers for both sides made their final submissions before Magistrate Anthony Vella.

The FKNK’s lawyer, Kathleen Grima, summed up the hunting federation’s arguments, insisting that the law made no distinction between a hunter and a non-hunter when it came to possession of protected birds. The courts had always found guilt on the part of those who were found to be in possession, said Grima, even if they had simply forgotten to declare all their catch.“What is important is the knowledge that he or she is in possession of a protected species.”

Her argument was comprehensively taken apart by defence lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, however.

A criminal conviction for this offence has two requirements: an illegal act and an intent, which is deduced from the particular circumstances of the case. He pointed out that the charges were for “keeping” protected species and that “possession” and “keeping”, were not synonymous. “Mere possession, without any criminal intent,” said the lawyer, “was not enough to establish guilt.”

“The intent has to be deduced from the circumstances from the case.”

Using drug busts as an example, he explained that were the FKNK’s arguments to be accepted in such cases, “then everybody should be in the dock, including the police, court registrars, jurors and so on.”

Describing the FKNK’s simplistic interpretation of the law as “silly, absurd and dangerous,” he appealed to the court to apply the law with common sense, whilst keeping in line with criminal procedure and said that it was clear that there was no criminal intent in this case.

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 the FKNK.

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