Lorin Scicluna. Right: Francesco Fenech.
The two soldiers facing criminal charges over the racially-motivated murder of a migrant were suspended from their duties following a special order by President George Vella.
The Armed Forces on Monday said that while it normally followed the principle of innocent until proven guilty, in this case it had decided to break with traditional practice and turn to the Office of the President for an order to immediately suspend the two soldiers.
One of the soldiers, Francesco Fenech, 21, was part of the Armed Forces’ C Company, a division within the first infantry regiment which is meant to be constantly combat ready, to be deployed in Malta or abroad, sources close to the murder investigation told the Times of Malta.
Mr Fenech is believed to have pulled the trigger on Lassana Cisse, a 42-year-old man from Ivory Coast. Two other migrants were also injured in the drive-by shooting incident.
These soldiers, who are considered the army’s elite, undertake special tactical and assault training and are usually deployed in peacekeeping or anti-piracy missions such as those off the coast of Somalia.
The other soldier involved in the case, Lorin Scicluna, 22, formed part of the AFM’s engineering division.
The two are believed to have been friends prior to joining the army and sources said they did not have any contact with each other while on official duties.
They both joined the AFM in the same recruitment period in the run-up to the 2017 general election.
Mr Cisse was killed on April 6 after he was fired upon by people inside a moving car. Two other men, also migrants – Ibrahim Bah, 27, from Guinea and Mohammed Jallow, 28, from Gambia – were also shot at from a white Toyota Starlet.
This is shocking for the Force
On Sunday, the two soldiers were accused of committing a racially-motivated murder, inciting hatred on the basis of race, firing shots in a public place with an unlicensed weapon, and making use of a car without registration plates as well as committing crimes they were supposed to prevent. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, in a statement, the AFM said an internal board of inquiry was looking into previous reports of racially motivated infringements and irregularities involving soldiers to try and identify any possible correlations.
“The idea is to establish whether there is a group of soldiers harbouring anti-migrant sentiments or if these two were lone wolves,” a senior AFM source said.
The AFM said it was shocked by the alleged involvement of two of its soldiers in the murder and expressed its condolences to the victim’s family and the migrant community in Malta.
“This is shocking for the Force, especially considering the sacrifices, commitment and dedication of its members who work incessantly, day and night, to save lives at sea, and not end them. This is done without distinction to nationality, colour and sex.
“This sense of shock is evident in all other members of the Force, who besides their grief for such loss of life, also feel that their own hard work is being tarnished by such actions of a condemnable nature. Certainly, this occurrence does not reflect the beliefs and values of the members of the Force,” the AFM said.
It said the two soldiers had no criminal record at the time they joined the AFM and their service was not connected to migrants.
While serving in the Force, both individuals had a clean military discipline record.
Regarding a court case which one of the accused already had, the AFM said this case was decided some time after the individual had joined the Force. The offence had occurred prior to his enlistment in the AFM.
The case was not considered to be of a sufficiently serious nature to merit discharge from the service, especially as the court had decided on a conditional discharge, having taken also into account that the soldier was a minor when he committed the offence.
“The AFM would also like to point out that, as an organisation, it has remit over military and not criminal offences. When it comes to criminal offences, the AFM leaves it up to the competent authorities, including the Malta Police Force and the Maltese courts, to see that its members undergo due process at law like any other Maltese citizen,” the AFM said.
The AFM also confirmed that it has appointed an internal inquiry which, among other things, is tasked to ascertain whether the migrant’s murder was an isolated event by two individuals or if there may be other groups or xenophobic concerns within the AFM.
The board is composed of senior officers who have also been asked to make recommendations on the basis of what results from the inquiry.