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8th Mar 2021

Malta's Muscat to 'navigate' murder probe despite outrage

  • 'There is no impunity in this country', Muscat (c) said, after two years of inaction over the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat is hanging on to power by his fingernails amid intense domestic and international pressure over his handling of a journalist's killing.

"My role right now is to make sure that we navigate through this turbulent time in the best possible manner," Muscat told the Reuters news agency in Valletta on Tuesday (26 November) morning.

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"What is happening now ... is an operation that is hopefully solving the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder," he said.

"Whatever people might say, there is no impunity in this country," he added.

Muscat spoke amid resignations by his chief-of-staff, Keith Schembri, and two ministers, Konrad Mizzi (tourism) and Chris Cardona (economy), the same day over their suspected links to the assassination of Caruana Galizia in 2017.

Police also questioned Schembri and searched his home after having found that Malta's richest businessman, Yorgen Fenech, whom they had arrested last week in connection with the case, had been in regular phone contact with the prime minister's right-hand man.

The "turbulent time" follows two years of inaction by Maltese authorities, which had prompted accusations of a government cover-up, after Caruana Galizia accused Schembri, Mizzi, and Muscat's own family of corruption on sales of EU passports and purchases of gas from Azerbaijan.

The turbulence saw angry street protests in Valletta last Wednesday, in which crowds threw eggs and coins at government cars.

It nearly saw a punch-up in parliament, when two of Muscat's MPs rushed at opposition deputies, who had chanted "Mafia! Mafia!", before being restrained by security guards.

Malta also suffered a brief electricity black-out after a technical glitch in the energy firm at the centre of the corruption affair, Enemalta, on what was already one of the strangest days in the tiny island state's modern times.

And Muscat's pledge to "navigate" the ongoing murder probe, using his far-reaching control of law enforcement agencies under Malta's constitution, led to fears that the cover-up would go on.

"Muscat ... must leave right now. He simply cannot be trusted to not obstruct justice. He has done so for too long," Caruana Galizia's son, Matthew, said on Twitter.

"The failure to prosecute Schembri, Mizzi and their protectors had fatal consequences for our wife and mother. If that failure continues, it will have fatal consequences for Malta's democracy," the Caruana Galizia family added in a statement.

"The only way for ... the nation, to be protected from further damage is for Joseph Muscat to resign with immediate effect," Aditus, a human rights NGO, also said.

German and Dutch politicians, as well as international NGOs, also piled on pressure.

International pressure

Muscat must take "political responsibility when it [the murder probe] is about his cabinet," Manfred Weber, the German head of the EU's centre-right bloc, the European People's Party, said.

The developments raised "serious questions around the judgement of prime minister Muscat," Sven Giegold, a German Green MEP, added.

The resignations "raise further, even more urgent questions for prime minister Muscat," Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch MP, said.

A group of 10 international human rights and press freedom NGOs, including Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders, also warned that Muscat "by placing himself at the centre of the investigation, raises the spectre of undue executive interference".

And Malta's business community, in an unusual move, bemoaned the harm the whole affair had done to the country's reputation.

"We disassociate ourselves from all those who use business as a shield for criminal activity," the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise, and Industry said.

Europol

An EU source had earlier told EUobserver the Malta murder probe took on a new lease of life after Europol, the joint EU police agency in The Hague, stepped up involvement.

"We urge Europol to provide the required, essential support to ... follow the money trail of the Malta-Azerbaijan money laundering network across jurisdictions, including especially the United Arab Emirates," Matthew Caruana Galizia added on Wednesday.

The Maltese fiasco comes amid broader EU concern on mounting lawlessness in Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

And an "international investigation" by "recognised judges and personalities" was the only way to "restore international confidence in Malta's rule of law," Giegold, the German MEP, said.

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