Monday

25th Jan 2021

Cover-up fears in Malta despite PM's resignation

  • 'They expect people to believe this shit', Matthew Caruana Galizia said on police exoneration of Keith Schembri (Photo: gov.uk)

Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat's slow-motion resignation posed ongoing risks of a cover-up on the murder of a journalist, his critics have warned.

"Muscat has delayed his resignation in an attempt to continue protecting himself and Schembri [a close associate]. There is no alternative explanation," the family of the slain journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, said on Sunday (1 December).

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  • Joseph Muscat (c) opted to stay in charge as murder investigation comes to a head (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"There is a reasonable and serious suspicion that at the very least, Joseph Muscat was, and still is involved in a cover-up to free his friends," Repubblika, a Maltese NGO, added.

"He [Muscat] must not be allowed to continue using his position to obstruct justice and avoid being investigated," Simon Busuttil, a senior figure from Malta's opposition Nationalist Party, also said.

The critics spoke out after Muscat pledged on national TV earlier the same day to step down in mid-January after his own Labour Party had picked a successor.

The timing meant he would retain far-reaching control of Malta's law enforcement institutions as the Caruana Galizia investigation came to a head.

His resignation came after Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese tycoon, confessed to being a middleman in the killing, but accused Keith Schembri, Muscat's chief-of-staff and lifelong friend, of having ordered the murder.

Police subsequently questioned Schembri, but let him go after posting a laconic statement on Facebook that it had found no evidence.

Muscat's party also opted to reinstate its economy minister, Chris Cardona, who had briefly resigned after himself becoming another suspect.

"They expect people to believe this shit," Caruana Galizia's son, Matthew, said on the Schembri vindication over the weekend.

And Cardona's reinstatement was "insane and unforgivable," another one of her sons, Paul, added.

Their mother was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 after lifting the lid on corruption schemes involving Schembri, Cardona, Muscat's wife, and others.

Fenech's arrest has prompted week-long anti-Muscat street protests in Valletta after two years of standstill in the investigation.

It has also prompted some in the European Parliament (EP) to speak of launching a sanctions procedure against Malta on grounds that its government had systematically abused the rule of law.

"Malta is a part of Europe, this concerns us all," Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP who is to take part in an EP fact-finding mission to Malta on Tuesday and Wednesday, said.

"Muscat needs to explain how he wants to stand for the rule of law after he held on to wrongdoing ministers for years," Sven Giegold, a German Green MEP who is also going to Malta, added.

For his part, Muscat, in his TV speech, pointed the finger at Fenech as being the main culprit in the killing.

He said three times that Fenech had "allegedly" ordered the murder, while not mentioning the Schembri allegations at all.

He remarked that the deceased, Daphne Caruana Galizia had had both "good and bad qualities" and accused protesters, who had thrown eggs at his car, of "violence and disorder".

He also cast himself as a victim of media "mud" slinging.

"Every day, in the past two years, I shouldered the burdens of responsibility and decision-making ... alone and in solitude because that is what the role of prime minister demands," he added, in a note of self-pity.

Nice for Malta?

Muscat spoke of his seven years in office as having been "nice years for Malta" due to economic growth, including lower energy prices.

But the new prosperity came, in part, from Muscat's sales of EU passports to shady foreign oligarchs in a scheme involving alleged government kick-backs.

And corruption involving Azerbaijani gas sales at inflated prices to a new Maltese energy plant was at the heart of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder plot.

Muscat also defended Malta's law enforcement bodies, saying "our institutions are strong and they work".

But the murder investigation made its breakthrough only after Europol, the EU's joint police agency, stepped up involvement, an EU source earlier told EUobserver.

"People will be out in the streets again tomorrow," Matthew Caruana Galizia said on Twitter on Sunday, shortly after Muscat had made his TV speech.

"It's clear that Muscat has lost control of the narrative" on his handling of the crisis, the EU source also said.

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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