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In quiet courtrooms, justice continues despite virus lockdown

The case of a convicted Croatian drug trafficker due to be extradited to serve a 10-year prison sentence in his home country came before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, in an unusual hearing tailored to meet the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Despite the lockdown, the administration of justice is still functioning as normal, particularly in criminal cases where a person’s liberty is at stake and in urgent civil matters including child protection orders.

The court building was mostly quiet on Tuesday except for judges, administrative staff, cleaners, security personnel, a handful of lawyers and a lone journalist.

Newly-installed hand sanitiser dispensers offered a gentle reminder, as if any were needed, of the public health crisis unfolding outside.

But behind closed doors in two courtrooms, one in the Supreme Court and another in the Magistrates Court, it was business as usual, for the most part.

In the Magistrates Court, Stipendiary Magistrate Charles Pitto heard bail applications and overnight listings in a courtroom empty save for prosecutor James Lennane, defence lawyer Jeevan Daswani, the police court officer, the clerk and a lone plainclothes RGP officer in the public gallery.

Defendants on remand appeared via video link, displayed on large TV screens hanging on the court walls.

In the adjacent Supreme Court building, Puisne Judge Karen Ramagge Prescott heard submissions from prosecutor Graceanne Gear in the courtroom, watched by her clerk, an usher, a lawyer in the public gallery taking notes, and Registrar Karl Tonna.

The Supreme Court was hearing the latest applications in the case of 43-year old Nikola Katic, who is wanted in Croatia to serve a 10-year prison sentence for his role in trafficking 155 kilograms of cocaine.

Katic, who is on remand in HM Windmill Prison, was not present in court, either physically or via video link.

The court infrastructure means that it cannot host both a telephone link and a separate video link simultaneously.

On Tuesday, the defendant deferred to his defence lawyer, Christopher Brunt, who made submissions via a telephone link but was not physically present. Instead, his voice was broadcast on speakers in the courtroom.

Katic was arrested in Gibraltar last year on the strength of a European Arrest Warrant and the Magistrate’s Court earlier this year ordered that he be returned to Croatia.

But Katic is considering appealing the conviction and sentence in Croatia, and is asking the Supreme Court to seek a guarantee from the Croatian authorities that, should he fail in that appeal, he be allowed to serve his sentence in Gibraltar.

The submissions yesterday focused on whether Katic would be legally entitled to appeal the conviction on his return, and on his application for a guarantee from the Croatian authorities.

Mrs Justice Ramagge Prescott sought additional clarification on both matters from Mr Brunt and questioned whether it was appropriate that Katic, who left Croatia after his conviction in 2015 but is now a Gibraltar resident, should be allowed to serve his sentence here if jailed.

Mrs Justice Ramagge Prescott, while leaving the question open for a later hearing, said it seemed “disturbing” that a man who fled from justice having been convicted in one country should later be allowed to serve his sentence in another.

The judge adjourned the case but said she wanted it heard within a fortnight, given the importance of the issues in question.

“A man’s liberty is at stake,” she said.

And she told Mr Brunt that it was vital that Katic himself be present for the next hearing, leaving no doubt that she expected prosecution and defence barristers to be present in court too.

“The court is open,” she said, adding that appropriate social distancing measures had been put in place.

“The court is functioning and this needs to be dealt with.”

“It’s important to have a proper hearing with us all here.”

The court has yet to fix a date for Katic’s next appearance.

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