In October 2017, anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb. Three months later, three professional hit men, believed to have been involved in the assassination, were apprehended. After their arrest, however, developments in the investigation stalled for over two years.
That is, until a sudden series of high-profile arrests last month – of prominent businessman Yorgen Fenech, as well as two government officials – reignited the case. As new details emerge, citizens have swept Malta in protest and called on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to resign due to his proximity to individuals believed to be tied to Galizia’s murder.
This led the Prime Minister to announce that he would be stepping down in January. Although there is no evidence to suggest any involvement by Muscat in Galizia’s death, Maltese citizens accuse him of obstructing justice and have made it clear that they are not going anywhere – over 5,000 gathered again this past Sunday to demonstrate against Muscat.
Caruana Galizia’s work was often controversial, at times implicating important members within Malta’s government and business communities. The journalist was no stranger to threats, among which included an arson attack on her home and the murder of her dog.
Before her death, Galizia was investigating suspicious payments made by a local power company, Electro Gas Malta, which had received 450 million euros in concessions to build a controversial plant. Last month, partial plant owner and businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested and charged with ordering the murder.
Fenech is involved in more than just Electro Gas Malta. He was the head of his family’s business, the Tumas Group, which owns hotels, casinos and commercial real estate. He is also a major investor and owner of a company called 17 Black, listed in the Panama Papers, that Caruana Galizia believed was a conduit for kickbacks.
The tip that led police to Fenech came from self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma, who offered authorities information in exchange for a presidential pardon, after having been arrested for a separate money-laundering scheme. In testimony given before a court on December 11th, Theuma recounted how he had been contracted by Fenech to hire Galizia’s assassins and referenced secret recordings he had taken of some of their meetings together. Fenech has pleaded not guilty on all charges, instead accusing the Maltese Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, of involvement in the murder. Fenech has gone so far as to claim that he is in possession of evidence that could implicate Schembri.
A Reuters investigation in 2018 revealed 17 Black was named in emails as having arranged payments from a bank account in Dubai to Panama companies owned by Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, who had been the energy minister when a concessions contract was awarded to Fenech-owned Electro Gas Malta. Though there is no evidence to suggest the transfer of monies, repeated calls were made for the Prime Minister to dismiss both government officials from their posts – a move that Muscat resisted.
Keith Schembri retained his position as Muscat’s chief of staff until his sudden resignation last month after being accused by Fenech’s lawyers of being linked to the murder. He was arrested the following day, only to be released from custody two days later. Mizzi has also resigned from his post as Minister for Tourism. At the time of Galizia’s death, they had each been suing the journalist for libel over allegations of corruption.
Both officials have denied any involvement in Galizia’s murder, but in a testimony given on December 11th, Theuma stated that he had recorded conversations in which Fenech said Schembri became involved due to their friendship. Theuma continued on to say, “I mentioned Keith Schembri on the paper because I was worried that he would arrange for me to be jailed. I cannot say under oath that Keith ever paid me for the murder…for the rest of it he has nothing to do with anything.”
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Spotlight on Malta
Though there has been no evidence to suggest Muscat’s involvement in the murder, there is large concern over his political ties to those accused – particularly that of former chief of staff and old school friend Keith Schembri.
In a televised address on December 1st, Muscat announced his plan to resign in January, when the Labour Party would pick new leadership. Among those expected to be contenders for the position are the Deputy Prime Minister, Chris Fearne, the Transport Minister, Ian Borg, and MEP Miriam Dalli.
“I promised justice”, the Prime Minister said, acknowledging that anger towards him was justified. “I kept my word – not only do we have three persons accused of this murder but, also now, someone accused of being the principal person behind this killing”, said Muscat. “This case cannot define everything that our country is.”
The next day, Muscat defended his government’s handling of the murder investigation since 2017, calling for national unity. “The case showed that Malta’s institutions work and everyone is equal before the law”, he said. Opposition lawmakers walked out of parliament in objection to Muscat’s delayed departure from office and hurled fake cash at government benches as they exited.
Meanwhile, thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest, with Caruana Galizia’s family leading them. Members of her family, as well as government critics, believe only his departure can ensure the investigation is free and fair. Since Muscat’s address, protests have simply continued to grow, with demonstrations by Maltese communities across Europe also calling on the Prime Minister to step down immediately.
On December 3rd and 4th, an urgent delegation from the European Parliament was sent to Malta to evaluate their functioning rule of law. Among the party was Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, who said the mission’s priority was “to investigate all potential links to the Prime Minister who has protected and defended these ministers for so long”.
Media, transparency groups, and civilians have called on the European Union to put pressure on Muscat to step down at once. Women-led movement, Occupy Justice, said “If the European Union does not reach out to help its own when democracy is being threatened, then we truly will start questioning what is the point of the European Union if it does not practice what it preaches.”
The new European Council President Charles Michel has promised that “the EU, its institutions and agencies will do everything within their power to ensure…that justice is done”.
In a situation that has changed the face of Malta’s political landscape, citizens – and the world – hope for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia. The next court hearings for this case will be held on December 19th and 23rd.