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Chief prosecutor defends Vatican legal system after recent criticism of Pope’s absolute power

Chief prosecutor defends Vatican legal system after recent criticism of Pope’s absolute power

ROME (AP) — The Vatican’s chief prosecutor has vigorously defended the integrity and fairness of the city-state’s justice system after criticism that Pope Francis’ absolute power and his interventions in the so-called “trial of the century” last year violated the fundamental rights of the defendants.

The defense of prosecutor Alessandro Diddi comes as the Vatican tribunal finalizes its written reasons for its December 2023 rulings. The tribunal convicted a cardinal and eight others of various financial crimes related to the Holy See’s €350 million investment in a London property, but has not yet explained its decisions.

Diddi published an essay last month in a peer-reviewed Italian journal, “Diritto e religioni” (Law and Religion), though he was not identified as the Vatican’s top criminal prosecutor, in line with the journal’s practice. Legal experts said such a publication in an academic journal was unusual, given that Diddi is a party to a lawsuit that is entering the appeals phase.

He was in fact responding to two academics – and lawyers representing some of the 10 defendants – who had raised questions about the fairness of the two-year trial and the investigation that preceded it.

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Their criticism has raised more fundamental concerns about whether a fair trial is even possible in an absolute monarchy where the pope exercises supreme legislative, executive and judicial power – and has used it in this case.

These critics have cited Pope Francis’ role in the process, since he secretly issued four decrees during the investigation that altered Vatican procedures in favor of prosecutors. And they have questioned the independence and impartiality of the tribunal itself, since the judges swear obedience to Francis, who can hire and fire them at will.

Francis recently appointed several of his closest allies — cardinals with no experience in Vatican law — as judges on the Vatican’s highest appeals court, and issued new rules on judges’ salaries and pensions.

In his essay, Diddi argued that the trial and the Vatican system itself were certainly fair. He maintained that the tribunal and its judges were completely independent and that the defense had every opportunity to present its case. He said that the pope’s four decrees merely filled in loopholes in Vatican law and had no bearing on the outcome of the trial or the rights of the defendants.

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“Although the Holy See is not a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, it does not place itself outside the international community or deny the principles on which it is based,” Diddi wrote.

The four secret decrees, signed by the pope in 2019 and 2020, gave Vatican prosecutors sweeping powers to investigate, including through unsupervised wiretapping and to deviate from existing laws by holding suspects without a judge’s warrant. The decrees came to light just before the trial, were never officially published, and provided no rationale or timetable for the surveillance or detention, or oversight by an independent judge.

Diddi denied that the decrees infringed on the rights of the defendants, saying they merely offered an “authentic interpretation” of the pope according to Vatican norms.

He argued that in any case the decrees only “disciplined some specific aspects of the investigation” and “did not identify any failure in the guarantees provided to the suspects.”

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Geraldina Boni, a canon lawyer who provided legal advice for Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s defense, wrote that the decrees represented a clear violation of the right to a fair trial, since the defendants were not informed of the broad powers granted to prosecutors until they were in court. One suspect who came in for questioning was jailed for 10 days by prosecutors.

Diddi noted that Swiss and Italian courts have previously recognized the independence and impartiality of the Vatican City judicial system and agreed to provide legal assistance in freezing the suspects’ assets.

However, these rulings were made before the current trial ended and the existence of the decrees became known. In addition, a British judge ordered the assets of one of the defendants to be released after finding “appalling” misrepresentations and omissions in Diddi’s case.

Questions about the fairness and impartiality of Vatican City’s judicial system could have long-term implications for the Holy See, since the Vatican relies on other countries to cooperate with law enforcement investigations and to carry out its sentences. These countries may be less willing to cooperate if they doubt the fairness of the system.

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Furthermore, when the Holy See signs commercial contracts with non-Vatican entities, it insists that any contract dispute be heard by its own tribunal. That contractual clause can become difficult to negotiate if there are questions about whether the other party will be treated fairly by the Vatican court.

Less hypothetically, the Holy See is periodically assessed by the Council of Europe’s Moneyval Commission. The evaluators of this commission analyse the effectiveness of the legal system in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.

In a related development, the Vatican’s third-highest official concluded three days of testimony in a London court on Monday in a countersuit brought by one of the Vatican’s defendants.

Raffaele Mincione, a London-based financier, wants the UK High Court to declare that he acted “in good faith” in his dealings with the Vatican over its London property. He hopes to clear his name and repair the reputational damage he says he and his company suffered as a result of the Vatican trial.

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Mincione has also filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva, alleging that the pope violated his rights by authorizing surveillance through the decrees. The Vatican has rejected the claim, saying in a press release that its investigation followed all relevant laws and international agreements and that no surveillance had in fact been ordered for Mincione.

Mincione and the other defendants have announced that they will appeal.