Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Former Malta opposition leader fears for his life

  • 'Our democracy is really drowning,' says Busuttil (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Simon Busuttil, the former leader of Malta's opposition party, cuts a lone figure in a political landscape full of people after his head.

In his office in a side street in Valletta, he says that the government under prime minister Joseph Muscat is ripping apart democracy and rule of law.

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  • Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb 10 months ago (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

"There has been an institutional capture of all the important institutions in the country. That includes the police," he told EUobserver on Thursday (16 August) -10 months to the day when journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated.

Malta has two big political parties - the centre-right Nationalist party in opposition and the centre-left Labour in government.

Busuttil resigned as Nationalist party leader last year after losing an election. He had earlier spent 10 years as an MEP.

His critics say he tried to discredit Muscat and Labour with a smear campaign ahead of last year's vote. Muscat won and the Nationalist party is now in shambles.

Three weeks ago, Busuttil's own party demanded he resign his seat in Malta's parliament. The new party leadership and Busuttil had long been at odds over critical articles about the party penned by Caruana Galizia.

It was on the back of a leaked cache of documents, the so-called Panama Papers, which exposed corruption hidden by secretive offshore companies, that Busuttil demanded a criminal investigation into once-secret accounts held by Muscat's chief-of-staff Keith Schrembri and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi.

The existence of their Panama-based companies is undisputed. That prime minister Muscat's own financial consultant helped set up both companies is not disputed either.

Busuttil's request had also sought to indict Muscat and a handful of others. All the suspects appealed before a judge, on duty that day, who happened to be married to a Labour party MEP.

Demands for the judge to be recused from the case, given the apparent conflict of interest, were denied. Malta's constitutional court then requested that the judge step down and another one be assigned to the case.

"It is getting to a point where they are steadily and slowly taking over the judiciary. Fortunately the Constitutional Court decided in my favour, one month ago, to remove the judge and guess what? They appealed," Busuttil says.

Similar conclusions were reached earlier this year when a European Parliament committee looking into rule of law in Malta declared that police investigate all corruption allegations to end the perceived culture of impunity in the country.

"Most of the MEPs criticised the lack of police action, despite the very serious evidence of maladministration involving even members of the Maltese government," said the committee, in a statement.

Two other probes are also under way. One deals with passport sales, another with an undeclared payment of some €650,000 to a managing director of a leading English language Maltese newspaper.

Both implicate Schembri.

One probe is looking into whether he, with the help of Muscat's financial consultant, received kickbacks from three Russians who were granted Maltese and therefore also EU citizenship.

When Schrembri denied the allegations, Caruana Galizia penned her last blog in response. She was dead later that same day.

A Maltese government official in late 2014 told this reporter that the passport scheme had been approved by the European Commission.

Yet earlier this month Vera Jourova, the EU commissioner for justice, told the Financial Times newspaper that she was preparing to crack down on the practice.

"It is a big concern when a Russian citizen who has worked his whole life in middle or senior management - where salaries aren't very high - suddenly has the money to buy citizenship in Malta," she told the newspaper.

She noted that Malta's scheme allows a person to gain citizenship in return for a €650,000 contribution to the country's development fund. It also requires them to purchase or lease property and invest at least €150,000 in stocks and bonds.

Life or death

Busuttil says all three inquires are still pending, with resistance mounting the most against the Panama Paper probe.

Internet memes are now circulating with Busuttil buried, his wife in mourning by his side, and with Schembri and Mizzi gloating over his death.

As the ranks close in around him, Busuttil says he now fears for his life and the security of his family.

"I feel there is a risk because of Daphne, if Daphne had not happened, I would not fear for my life," he said.

A campaign also appears to be under way to further discredit Busuttil, the deceased Caruana Galizia, and her estranged source Maria Efimova, a former employee of Pilatus bank, a Maltese bank at the centre of the alleged corruption schemes.

Three weeks ago, Malta's attorney general gave Muscat a 1,500-page report on an inquiry that sought to establish whether there was any evidence to suggest his wife had owned a shell company known as Egrant set up by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. No evidence was found, according the summary.

Muscat then called a press conference, declaring to the world that he, his wife, and his close associates Schembri and Mizzi had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

But only Muscat has the full report of an inquiry that involved himself.

Busuttil says the prime minister is now "drip feeding information from an inquiry" that he himself has along "with tools of the state in his hands" and much of government friendly media.

"I am one of the few left standing, which is why the campaign against me is so strong," says Busuttil.

Malta's PM cleared of Panama Papers wrongdoing

Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat says a year long probe has dispelled allegations he, his wife and political associates were involved in money laundering or fraud.

EU passport sales create 'proud Maltese citizens'

Malta says its 'Golden Visas' scheme attracts families that want to become "proud Maltese citizens". Meanwhile the sales to Russian nationals, and others, have generated over €700m in revenue.

Opinion

Caruana Galizia one year on: momentum is key

EU institutions must continue to seek justice for the killers of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruna Galizia in order to protect press freedom in Europe.

Muscat's one-man rule poses challenge for EU

Malta's PM already enjoys the kind of one-man rule Hungary and Poland are trying to build, but can the EU afford another political confrontation in sensitive times?

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