Saturday

6th Mar 2021

Malta murder crisis escalates to EU-wide proportions

  • Memorial to Caruana Galizia, some of whose stories were published by EUobserver, in Valletta (Photo: Continentaleurope)

MEPs are to send a "fact-finding mission" to Malta amid calls for EU sanctions on Valletta if its prime minister, Joseph Muscat, refuses to step down over the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The European Parliament's (EP) political groups agreed, on Thursday (28 November), to send the "urgent" mission to the island state as soon as possible.

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"The situation in Malta has consequences for the entire European project," Manfred Weber, the German head of the centre-right European People's Party group, the EP's largest one, said in Strasbourg the same day.

Muscat's chief-of-staff and two of his ministers had been implicated in the assassination, which took place two years ago, since the beginning, but "Muscat has protected them all this time and defended them again and again, while attacking those who wanted to expose them," Weber noted.

"Clear political links must have clear political consequences," the German MEP said.

"Malta must adhere to the rule of law and European values," a German Green MEP, Sven Giegold, also said.

The EP has the power to trigger an EU sanctions procedure against member states which abuse the rule of law, as it did already against Hungary last year.

And the spectre of Muscat coming to EU summits, or his government voting on various measures in the EU Council despite the revelations, was an odious one, Maltese opposition politicians said.

"Muscat sits at the European Council with other prime ministers while his chief-of-staff has been [accused of] being one of the masterminds [of the killing]," Jason Azzopardi, a Maltese MEP, said in a letter to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

"A government that murders its own people has absolutely no place in the European Union," David Casa, a Maltese MEP, also said in a separate letter to the EU commission chief.

The commission, which can itself launch EU sanctions procures, as it did against Poland in 2017, declined to comment on "ongoing national investigations".

But its spokesman said: "We need to send a clear signal to all journalists: it is safe to work in Europe. If journalists are silenced, so is democracy".

For its part, the European affairs committee in the Dutch parliament has asked The Hague to take action on the "rule of law crisis in Malta" if Muscat used presidential pardons to protect suspects.

And it asked The Netherlands to consider isolating Maltese intelligence services from "sharing of confidential information" in a sign of the loss of trust in Maltese institutions in wider Europe.

"The [Maltese] secret services are under direct control of the prime minister, so what precautions are being taken [to stop abuse]?", Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch MP, told EUobserver.

High drama

The continental escalation of the Maltese crisis came after a week of high drama in Valletta.

It began with the arrest of a Maltese tycoon, Yorgen Fenech, who was at the centre of a corruption scheme first uncovered by Caruana Galizia.

Fenech then named Muscat's chief-of-staff, Keith Schembri, as the mastermind behind the killing, and said two of Muscat's ministers, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona, were also involved.

Schembri, Mizzi, and Cardona said they were innocent but subsequently resigned.

Police questioned Schembri, but later let him go.

And protesters have been picketing Muscat's office in Valletta for days calling for him to step down as well.

But the prime minister, who was himself accused of corruption by Caruana Galizia and who controls Maltese law enforcement bodies, has refused to do so.

He refused again in a 3AM press conference on Friday following a six-hour cabinet meeting on the crisis.

He also refused to pardon Fenech in return for his testimony, prompting Fenech's lawyers to join the MEPs in casting doubt on his impartiality.

"Since this case is about persons very close to the prime minister, it should not be the prime minister or a member of his cabinet to give such advice," Fenech's lawyers said.

The corruption scheme, first uncovered by Caruana Galizia, had involved kick-backs on gas purchases at inflated prices from Azerbaijan.

The gas was to feed a new power plant co-owned by Fenech, as well as by Malta's two biggest business dynasties, the Gasan and Apap Bologna families, Azerbaijan state energy firm Socar, and German engineering company Siemens.

The Reuters news agency later helped expose the fraud by naming Fenech as the owner of a Dubai-based firm, 17 Black, that was used to pay the kick-backs.

Details come out

And Reuters continued to pour out fresh revelations on Thursday.

Fenech, the British news agency said, has told police he paid €150,000 for the killing on Schembri's request, €20,000 of which went to a middleman between Fenech and the assassins.

The middleman, a taxi driver called Melvin Theuma, who also confessed, is under arrest.

Vince Muscat (no relation to the prime minister), who along with two Maltese gangsters, brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio, stand accused of carrying out the murder, also spilled the beans to police in April 2018 in a confession which was seen by Reuters but which it did not previously publish so as not to harm police work.

The three men were paid €30,000 up front and had originally planned to shoot Caruana Galizia with a rifle and telescopic sights they bought from Italy, Vince Muscat said.

They were going to do it through a window where she used to sit and work on her laptop and had even placed a sandbag to act as a rest for the rifle, he added.

But they later returned the rifle and bought a bomb from Italian mobsters instead.

They levered open a window in her hire car in the small hours of 16 October 2017, when it had been parked in the street outside her home, and placed the bomb under the driver's seat.

The bomb killed her later the same day and Theuma brought them the rest of their fee in cash 10 days later, Vince Muscat said.

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