A year of progress, a year of stasis

It was a year of progress in the case of justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia, and a year when little seemed to change. 

Press investigations uncovered further details in the many corruption stories the journalist was working on when her life was cut short by a car bomb on 16 October 2017, and press freedom groups continued campaigning to improve the safety of journalists in the wake of her violent death. There’s still a long way to go, but these developments left their mark over the last 12 months.

2021 saw the long-awaited conclusion of a public inquiry that found the Maltese State responsible for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. The 400+ page report cited wide-reaching failures in every part of the administration that culminated in a collapse in the rule of law and a culture of total impunity.

The board was “flabbergasted” by the alleged perpetrators’ testimony, noting the “cold-blooded way in which the crime was carried out”. The hired killers were so sure they’d get away with it that they bragged about “their contacts with ministers, the chief of staff, and other persons at the heart of power”, referring to them in court as ‘No. 1’, ‘the old man’, and ‘the king’.

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s refusal to commit to a specific plan for implementing the recommendations proposed by the report indicated his continued unwillingness to hold key figures to account.

‘Electrogas was the motive’

The stories Caruana Galizia was investigating revealed that Malta is a hub for corruption and money laundering which spreads through Europe and beyond, but the slain journalist’s son Matthew said a corrupt power station deal was the motive for her murder. The man accused of her assassination led both the consortium behind the energy deal and the project negotiations.

The Electrogas project was a key commitment of Joseph Muscat’s newly elected Labour Party, and Caruana Galizia had uncovered information that would have “put in doubt” the future of the project, the public inquiry concluded. Matthew said Daphne was planning to publish the results of her investigation by the end of the year, but these revelations were interrupted by her assassination.

Everything allegedly centred on the man accused of financing the murder, Yorgen Fenech, the project’s ‘key person’. “He would be contacted when they needed a favour from [Energy Minister] Konrad Mizzi or the Prime Minister,” Matthew said. “They always went to Yorgen.”

A secret offshore structure owned by Fenech, 17 Black, had already been linked to companies owned by Mizzi and chief of staff Keith Schembri, but fresh insights emerged during 2021 offering additional proof that the two men had used their control of major government contracts for personal gain

Investigations also revealed that Fenech’s fellow Electrogas director, Paul Apap Bologna, had opened his own secret offshore company called Kittiwake at the same time as 17 Black. Apap Bologna is the scion of one of Malta’s ‘noble’ families, and one of the project’s key investors. The existence of Kittiwake was a clear indication he was in on the ‘sinister’ deal from the beginning, but he has not been questioned by the police.

Fenech’s ties to top politicians

Data extracted from Fenech’s phone confirmed the accused mastermind’s intimate ties to Malta’s top politicians.

Police found two large volumes of messages between Fenech, the former prime minister and his chief of staff in a WhatsApp chat opened by the Prime Minister two days after the alleged hitmen were arrested. 

The phone also contained a copy of the presidential pardon offered to the murder middleman in exchange for information. Fenech told police it was sent to him by Schembri, the former prime minister’s chief of staff.

All remain free of accusations of involvement in Caruana Galizia’s assassination despite evidence of political interference in the murder investigation. 

Other compromising messages were found between Fenech and Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, as well as chats with top officials responsible for regulating the industries Fenech operated in, including the Malta Financial Services Authority (responsible for regulating financial services) and the Planning Authority (responsible for building permits).

Fenech wasn’t just intimately linked to Malta’s top politicians. He was being kept informed of the progress of the murder investigation by Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta – the husband of a Minister. Valletta hasn’t been charged by police, but former Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar is reportedly being investigated for “possible collusion” after getting caught holding secret meetings with an associate of the middleman. And a former superintendent from the Economic Crimes Unit was arrested on suspicion of leaking information about the investigation. 

Arrests were made, but only at the bottom

Five of the seven people arrested and charged in connection with the assassination have asked the government for a deal, and two were accepted. 

The middleman in the plot, Melvin Theuma was granted a Presidential pardon in 2017 in exchange for revealing everything he knew. 

One of the hitmen, Vince Muscat, was given a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty in a deal with prosecutors in February 2021. Days later, police arrested three men who are suspected of supplying the bomb. In his first appearance on the witness stand, the hitman claimed Caruana Galizia was killed because of what she was about to reveal, and top members of government knew about the assassination in advance.

After a lengthy compilation of evidence process, Yorgen Fenech was indicted for the brutal execution by car bomb, and prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment. No date has yet been set for the trial. 

The same set of names came up again and again in connection to the corruption that led to Daphne’s murder: Keith Schembri, Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Yorgen Fenech. While the police may have netted the small fry, they failed to press charges against any senior political figure over the murder, corruption or money laundering.

Keith Schembri was arraigned on money laundering charges for unrelated financial crimes linked to Malta’s largestindependent newspaper, The Times of Malta, but he only spent a few days in jail before being granted bail. Three of the publisher’s former managing directors are also facing money laundering charges. 

The only action came from abroad

The government’s clear unwillingness to act against top officials prompted the international community to imposesanctions in 2021 to further isolate the country from the global financial system.

Malta was placed on The Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) ‘grey list’ of countries at high risk of money laundering and terrorist financing, a decision Prime Minister Robert Abela called “unjust” and “not deserved”. 

Soon after, the UK placed Malta on its list of high-risk countries for money laundering and terrorist financing, and the 2021 Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index ranked Malta as the highest risk country in the entire European Union.

The response from Europe has been strong on words but short on action. The European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to adopt a resolution calling on Malta to do everything in its power to bring to justice all of those implicated in cases Caruana Galizia investigated prior to her death. 

MEP Vladimir Bilcik went further, saying, “Testimony has made clear that it was the links between the criminal underworld, the Maltese government, and the Malta Labour Party that allowed the assassination to take place.” 

Families in Malta were just beginning to celebrate Christmas when the US State Department announced it had put Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri under sanction, banning them and their immediate family members from travel to the United States. 

A US embassy official confirmed the two were placed on the global list of offenders because they “were involved in a corrupt scheme that entailed the award of a government contract for the construction of a power plant and related services in exchange for kickbacks and bribes”.

The US has lost patience with Malta’s investigations and they expect results, but the spectre of Joseph Muscat continues to hang over his successor, as does Prime Minister Abela’s possible involvement in corruption while serving in Muscat’s Cabinet.

As 2021 drew to a close, the path to justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family was very clear, but no one in government wants to take it.

The following project is weekly Maltese Roundups prepared by The Shift News (Malta) offering the latest news in the Daphne Caruana Galizia case.