Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry: Where to from here?

The details revealed by the public inquiry into Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination have raised alarming concerns about political involvement, systemic corruption, and attempts to pervert the course of justice by shielding those involved from scrutiny. Before the public inquiry’s scheduled hearing this month, we take a look at the key outcomes last year.  

The rot is most evident in the police, the politicians, and the bureaucracy. The subservience of top police officials to top politicians paints an alarming picture of institutional failure in a country where the powerful enjoy complete impunity from prosecution for crimes ranging from corruption to — quite possibly — assassination.

Law enforcement in Malta was rotting from the head down, thanks in part to the close personal friendship between Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta and Yorgen Fenech, the businessman on trial for commissioning the murder. 

Valletta kept chief of staff Keith Schembri informed of his investigation, and that information was passed on to Fenech, who is accused of commissioning her murder by car bomb in October 2017. But Valletta wasn’t alone in turning a blind eye to compromising behaviour.

Ian Abdilla, former head of the Economic Crimes Unit, admitted police had done nothing about the Panama Papers revelations, and that Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and Schembri — the two men exposed as having set up offshore company structures within 72 hours of the Labour Party’s election — were never questioned. 

Nor were Brian Tonna and Karl Cini, whose NexiaBT set up the Panama company structures, and were auditors for both Schembri’s private companies and for the controversial Electrogas power station deal that Daphne was investigating when she was killed. 

The Panama companies were closely linked to Fenech’s Dubai kickback vehicle 17 Black, used to transfer illicit funds related to Electrogas from an Azerbaijani businessman.

It’s become increasingly clear that the power station deal was the most likely motive for her murder. Daphne was investigating a cache of leaked documents on the deal at the time of her death – if she had revealed what journalists pursuing her stories did following her death, it is unlikely the deal would have gone through. This would have had severe repercussions on the country’s economy as the government had offered a State guarantee to the consortium behind the project that was worth hundreds of millions. 

And yet, former Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar — the fifth since Labour’s election to power — admitted to the board of inquiry that he had failed to follow up on the high profile corruption cases Daphne exposed in her work. “During my time as commissioner of police,” he said, “a file on the Panama Papers was not opened.” When he eventually resigned, he was given a consultancy job with the Home Affairs Ministry on the same day. 

Testimony by Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit employees also showed the unit to be severely under-resourced — so severely that former head Manfred Galdes found it “difficult for the FIAU to exert its duty according to the law and international obligations”.

Former Attorney General Peter Grech had issued written advice to the police “to tread very carefully on the Panama Papers”. He also advised police that it would be “highly intrusive” to seize evidence from Nexia BT’s servers, saying it would carry a considerably high legal risk which could be “counterproductive”.

It is now clear the police were sitting on the evidence, placing journalists at greater risk for what they were exposing.

This voluntary paralysis on the part of law enforcement was enabled by a pliant bureaucracy consumed by its own widespread rot.

Every government official who testified before the public inquiry showed similarly alarming symptoms of memory loss compounded by temporary blindness, prompting a frustrated Judge Michael Mallia to retort, “Why are you paid if you gave no input? How is it possible that you were between four walls, and you heard nothing?”

The standard reply used by present and former staff at the Office of the Prime Minister was “I don’t remember” or “I don’t know” or “but I’m a person of trust”. It seems the only responsibility everyone could agree to take action was cashing their own pay cheque.

Towering above it all, pulling strings like a puppet master, we find the most rotten sector of all: Malta’s elected representatives.

The public inquiry exposed unacceptably close ties between big business and top politicians — particularly former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s inner circle.

Accused mastermind Yorgen Fenech was particularly close to Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri, with whom he exchanged frequent text messages, even after he became the main suspect in the assassination. Fenech gave the two men lavish gifts — including a limited edition Bvlgari watch, rare bottles of Petrus wine, and cancer treatments for Schembri in the United States. 

Muscat and Schembri defended their actions, claiming it was normal to have such close relations with businessmen. Schembri went so far as to tell the inquiry board that Malta couldn’t be a corrupt country because the economy was so good, thanks to his own time in power.

As for the rest, each politician who testified said the same things.  Most pointed the finger at Konrad Mizzi. Every time Daphne exposed a new scam, it seemed to have his signature on the contract.

Finance Minister Edward Scicluna blamed the prime minister’s powerful inner circle, referring to it as a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ that took the real decisions. And yet, when the Opposition called for a vote of confidence in parliament, all those ministers who told the inquiry they’d demanded his resignation in private still backed Mizzi in parliament with their vote — including the Finance Minister. 

“Whoever wants to hijack a system, it is that person who is responsible,” Scicluna said. “I am not.”

Every official had a similar story to tell. They weren’t responsible for any of the dark deals that spread through all levels of government under the former Prime Minister. They saw nothing and heard nothing. They simply cashed their pay cheques and minded their own ministerial backyards.

A few politicians threw others under the bus during their testimony, we don’t yet know why. But throughout it all, one thing was abundantly clear. All roads lead back to Joseph Muscat.

Joseph Muscat

The utter rot in these three sectors — the police, bureaucracy and politicians — taken together created an environment where Daphne could be killed in broad daylight just down the road from her home, and where those responsible could subvert justice by covering up their involvement.

The year ended on a discouraging note, as the special rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Pieter Omtzigt, reached the end of his mandate. Omtzigt was a pivotal figure in forcing Muscat to establish the inquiry, and the strongest voice in Europe in the fight for justice for Daphne.

He pointed out on Twitter: “In a few months, the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry has done more to expose the corruption, misgovernment & criminal conspiracies that plagued Malta at the time of her death than all of the endless, opaque and ineffectual magisterial inquiries put together”.

Unfortunately, rather than prompt self-examination followed by desperately needed institutional change, the inquiry’s success has made it a target of the government

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s attempt to set time limits on the inquiry, pressuring it to end by December, were met with outright refusal by the board. 

Robert Abela

Instead of acknowledging the board members’ offer to relinquish their honorarium for service rendered to the country, Abela chose to attack them. This was followed by a terse official statement warning, “The board has to assume responsibility for its decisions and its consequences.”

The Labour Party propaganda machine ramped up its efforts to undermine the inquiry’s legitimacy, going so far as to plant stores in the media timed and aimed at undermining one of the judges.

When Robert Abela threw his hat in the ring to replace Joseph Muscat after civil society protests drove the latter from office in disgrace, he campaigned on a platform of ‘continuity’, and that’s exactly what he’s delivering.

We enter 2021 with a public inquiry board determined to continue the fight for justice— and a Labour government determined to do everything it can to derail that fight while clinging to power.

It remains unclear which way this struggle will go.

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