Sunday 15 December 2019

Malta's PM on brink as murdered journalist's family tell him to quit

Under pressure: Joseph Muscat has seen close associates quit. Photo: Reuters/Yara Nardi
Under pressure: Joseph Muscat has seen close associates quit. Photo: Reuters/Yara Nardi

Chris Scicluna

Malta's prime minister was yesterday reported to have told associates he plans to resign as the crisis over the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia deepens.

Joseph Muscat's spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the report.

Mr Muscat's chief of staff and two members of his cabinet have stepped aside this week over the case, which threatens to bring down Malta's political elite more than two years after Ms Caruana Galizia was blown up by a car bomb.

Yesterday, after Mr Muscat's former right-hand man Keith Schembri was freed by police, the murdered journalist's family demanded that the prime minister step down.

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Mr Schembri was held for questioning in the murder case this week, but denies wrongdoing.

Also yesterday, Mr Muscat's cabinet turned down a request to pardon a businessman, Yorgen Fenech, over the murder in return for testimony.

Mr Fenech's lawyers said that his evidence would implicate senior figures within the Maltese government, including Mr Schembri.

Mr Fenech, who was arrested last week while trying to leave the country in his yacht, was also freed on bail yesterday.

He appeared in court later in the day for a hearing at which he hopes to have his request for a pardon sent directly to the president.

This would avoid the cabinet, which his lawyers say has a conflict of interest.

Ms Caruana Galizia's family said yesterday Mr Muscat must resign rather than preside over "an assassination investigation that so far implicates three of his closest colleagues".

"This travesty of justice is shaming our country, ripping our society apart, and it is degrading us. It cannot continue any longer," they said.

Family members and their supporters staged a vigil outside the government headquarters on Thursday night which continued as the cabinet meeting to discuss Mr Fenech's immunity request ran on into the early hours.

As one minister was driven away, one of Ms Caruana Galizia's sons hurled fruit at his car and shouted obscenities.

Three men have been awaiting trial for setting the bomb that killed Ms Caruana Galizia, but so far the authorities have failed to track down the person who hired them. The case has moved quickly recently, since a middleman suspected of introducing the killers to the person who ordered the hit was pardoned in return for testimony.

Within days, the authorities had arrested Mr Fenech, whose empire included property, retail, hospitality, gambling and energy companies. He handed the reins to his brother a day before attempting to leave Malta on his yacht.

In a letter to the president, Mr Fenech's lawyers said he was prepared to give information involving Mr Schembri, tourism minister Konrad Mizzi and economy minister Chris Cardona.

Mr Mizzi resigned on Tuesday and Mr Cardona has suspended himself from his ministerial duties. All the men deny wrongdoing.

In a separate case yesterday showing how the corruption allegations have closed in on the government, a court ordered Mr Mizzi, Mr Cardona and finance minister Edward Scicluna to face a criminal probe over the granting of a contract to run hospitals. The three all deny wrongdoing in that case.

Mr Muscat has rebuffed previous calls to quit. "I will not abdicate my responsibilities. Malta needs stable leadership," he said.

Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, said she was "concerned by allegations of political interference in the investigation" and called on Mr Muscat to prevent the appearance of collusion.

Before she was killed, Ms Caruana Galizia had revealed the existence of a secret offshore company called 17 Black.

A Reuters investigation last year revealed Mr Fenech was the owner of the company, named in emails as a vehicle to fund secret Panama companies owned by Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi.

Mr Mizzi has said there are no links between him and the company. Mr Cardona has also denied involvement.

Irish Independent

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