BirdLife Malta activists were this morning cleared in court of criminal charges relating to their work rescuing shot and injured birds. Nicholas Barbara, BirdLife Malta’s Conservation Manager, and Fiona Burrows, now of CABS (Committee Against Birds Slaughter), had been charged with illegal possession of protected birds in a case instigated by the hunters’ federation FKNK. The court supported the defense’s argument that there was no criminal intent in rescuing illegally shot birds and publishing photos to raise awareness on the issue.
Speaking shortly after this morning’s final deliberation in court, Nicholas Barbara said, “Today’s decision confirms that our conservation aim to rescue birds which have been illegally shot and injured, and raise awareness about illegal hunting is not a criminal offence. Common sense has prevailed.”
The case which was concluded today after several sittings, had its origin from a photograph taken in October 2012 showing BirdLife Malta staff and volunteers holding protected birds which had been illegally shot. The photograph had elicited various complaints by FKNK, prompting the police to interrogate the six activists in the photo. Police investigations had concluded there was no basis to prosecute in court, in reaction to which, FKNK then filed a legal challenge against the Police Commissioner signed by FKNK’s lawyer Kathleen Grima.
The case was eventually brought to court, with charges pressed against four of the six activists who were still residing on the island. During the second hearing, it resulted that false charges had been made against a BirdLife staff member, Caroline Rance, who did not appear in the photograph but was nominated and subsequently charged on the suggestion of FKNK. Charges against Ms Rance were eventually dropped. During further sittings, testimonies by Nicholas Barbara, Fiona Burrows, officers in charge of the ALE, officers from the Wild Birds Regulations Unit, and a Times of Malta representative were also made in relation to the case.
In its final deliberation today, the court heard both prosecution and defence arguments, with the prosecution aided in parte civile by FKNK’s Kathleen Grima insisting that the court should be as impartial to BirdLife Malta activists as to people who get sentenced in court for possession or lack of registration of stuffed protected birds. Grima argued that BirdLife Malta’s notifications to the police and government authorities of birds received by the organisation were not enough evidence to prove that such possession was legal.
Speaking in defence, lawyer Dr Steven Tonna Lowell differentiated on Grima’s opinion clarifying that BirdLife Malta activists had not been in possession of shot birds with any criminal intent, but that they intervened on the request of members of the public to assist in rescuing these birds and bring them to the attention of a veterinarian. The defence also questioned whether this was indeed a criminal case focused on the two activists, or whether it should be a case against all persons who in some way come into contact with protected species as part of their duties, or have intervened to rescue injured protected species.
Commenting further on the outcome of the case, BirdLife Malta’s Conservation Manager Nicholas Barbara said, “This case was nothing more than a failed attempt by the FKNK to silence our plea to reveal the extent of illegal hunting which takes place in our countryside. We will not be silenced or intimidated by such acts, and appeal to the FKNK to take matters seriously against those who commit acts of illegal hunting rather than against those who expose it.”
Today’s closed case is one of a number of cases spearheaded by FKNK’s lawyer Kathleen Grima against BirdLife Malta activists. Another case relates to trespassing charges on public land at Mizieb during the spring hunting season of 2013 which is still ongoing. “From the start this case has been a waste of everyone’s time, but it is just one of a number of court cases brought by FKNK against BirdLife in a feeble attempt to stop us from doing our job. We refuse to be harassed and bullied in this way,” concluded Mr Barbara.