Thursday 5 December 2019

Maltese leader to quit as outrage grows over alleged links to killing

In memory: A protester carries a picture of Daphne Caruana Galizia during a rally outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta, Malta. Photo: Reuters
In memory: A protester carries a picture of Daphne Caruana Galizia during a rally outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta, Malta. Photo: Reuters
Pointed: Protesters in Valletta accused Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of a role in the scandal. Photo: Reuters

Stephen Calleja

Malta's embattled prime minister agreed to step down on the day angry citizens staged their biggest protest yet over the alleged links of his former top aide to the slaying of a journalist.

Hours before Joseph Muscat asked his ruling Labour Party to choose a new leader in the new year, his parliamentary group expressed "unanimous support" for him.

Mr Muscat has been in power since 2013.

In a televised message last night, he said he had informed the nation's president that he would quit as leader of Labour on January 12 and that "in the days after I will resign as prime minister".

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About 20,000 Maltese citizens jammed the centre of the capital Valletta yesterday in what was by far the largest turnout so far in weeks of public outpouring of anger and disgust aimed at Mr Muscat's government.

His former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, who resigned last week, was arrested for questioning in the investigation of the 2017 killing of anti-corruption reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia. Mr Schembri was among government members targeted by her investigative reporting.

Mr Schembri, who denies any wrongdoing, was released after questioning.

On Saturday night, millionaire Maltese hotel and casino owner Yorgen Fenech was arraigned in Valletta's courthouse on charges of complicity in the murder.

The businessman, who was arrested on November 20 as he sailed from Malta on his yacht, was also charged with organising and financing the powerful bomb blast.

Mr Fenech claims he is innocent. He had requested immunity from prosecution by promising to reveal information about government officials. His bid for immunity was rejected first by Mr Muscat on his own and later by Mr Muscat's cabinet.

Participants in yesterday's protest carried photos of the slain journalist as well as placards with the last words she wrote on her blog shortly before getting into her car, which was blown up near her home.

"The situation is desperate," she had written, referring to what she unearthed with her digging into suspected widespread corruption in Malta's political and business circles.

On the placards, protesters added the word "still" before "desperate".

Families with young children, teenagers and the elderly carried Maltese flags and signs demanding both Mr Muscat's resignation and justice as they protested outside the city's main courthouse.

Affixed to the gate outside the courthouse were copies of a photo that was published on Saturday by 'Malta Today' showing Mr Schembri with the alleged middleman in the case, taxi driver Melvin Theuma. It was unclear where and when the photo was taken.

Mr Theuma recently was granted immunity from the prosecution in exchange for giving details on who was behind the bombing. Shortly after the blast, three men were arrested for allegedly carrying out the actual bombing. No trial date has been set for those three.

Among the demonstrators were Ms Caruana Galizia's family, including her parents, who walked at the head of the protest, behind a banner with the word "justice".

Irish Independent

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