4th Mar 2021

Muscat poker-faced in Malta inquiry into journalist murder

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"How well I'm screwed," was the then Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat's first thought on 16 October 2017, when he found out his country's best-known journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, had just been murdered by a car bomb.

His next thought, Muscat said in his testimony in an inquiry in Valletta on Friday (4 December), was to call outside help.

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"I think I told the police commissioner to involve Europol immediately," he said, referring to the EU's joint police agency.

"We spoke to the Dutch and the English too. Keith [Schembri, Muscat's then chief-of-staff] said he would speak to the Americans ... and was told that the FBI would come down from Rome the next day," Muscat said.

Muscat's lack of empathy was noted by the Caruana Galizia family's lawyer, Jason Azzopardi.

"'They've screwed me over' - was that the prime minister's reaction? Nothing about the fact a mother had been killed?", Azzopardi said at Friday's hearing.

And despite Muscat's picture of a hive of police activity, three years later and neither the killers nor those who ordered the assassination have faced trial.

Friday's hearing was part of an independent public inquiry into whether Muscat's government had created a climate of impunity for serious crime in the EU micro-state.

Muscat himself resigned in January when police arrested Schembri, his right-hand man, on money-laundering charges.

It has also emerged that Muscat went to parties and shared a WhatsApp group with Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese tycoon, who has been charged with hiring three hit-men to kill Caruana Galizia.

And she had been publishing corruption revelations about Muscat, Schembri, and others in Muscat's government when she was killed, stirring suspicion.

"I don't even want to entertain that question!", Muscat said angrily on Friday, when asked to deny involvement in her murder.

He said he gave Caruana Galizia police protection in 2013.

He also noted that out of 140 car bomb attacks in Malta in the past few decades, hers was the only case close to being solved.

He spent parts of his four-hour long hearing denigrating the victim.

"I know her family won't like this," Muscat said, but Caruana Galizia was "politically irrelevant" when she was killed and whoever did it was "stupid".

He accused her of writing "gutter gossip".

He also made glib jokes, for instance, when asked if his last trip as prime minister had been to Montenegro to promote a shady wind farm project.

"The last trip was to the pope and I hope the pope is not corrupt too," Muscat said.

And he "lectured" the public inquiry on the terms of its mandate, according to Corinne Vella, Caruana Galizia's sister, who tweeted from the event.

"Muscat didn't give a proper interview for almost three years. Now he won't stop talking off his ring-binder of notes ... [He] is talking rather a lot about himself and lecturing the assembly (mostly journalists) on journalism. He's speaking in a public inquiry into a murder," Vella said.

Muscat also defended socialising with Fenech, the Maltese tycoon, in a thumbnail sketch of how government worked in Valletta.

"About 10 people run the [Maltese] economy," Muscat said.

There was "nothing untoward" about their WhatsApp chat group, and he might have been added to it without knowing, Muscat also said.

There were other inconsistencies in his comments.

At one point, Muscat said there was nothing wrong in the fact Schembri, his chief-of-staff, had created an offshore company while they worked together, because: "having a financial structure does not immediately mean that one is doing something criminal".

But at another point, Muscat said he pledged to resign when Caruana Galizia reported his wife also had an offshore firm.

"First time I heard it I laughed out. I asked her [my wife] and she said she hadn't opened any companies. If there was an ounce of truth in it, I pledged to resign," Muscat said.

'Never again'

The public inquiry began in December 2019 and has "made substantial progress despite limited cooperation from the Maltese government", according to the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, a press-freedom NGO in Malta.

But the current prime minister, Robert Abela, from Muscat's political party was, "worryingly", seeking to curtail its mandate and "undermine its hard-won and essential independence," the NGO added in a statement on Friday.

The lessons from the murder needed to be learned, the foundation said, because "it is only then that Malta can begin a process of real change that ensures nothing like this ever happens again".

The criminal investigation by police into Fenech and the three alleged hit-men - George Degiorgio, Alfred Degiorgio, and Vince Muscat (no relation to the former PM) - is ongoing.

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