‘I’ll be back later’ – Matthew Caruana Galizia tells court last words of slain journalist

“Ok. I’ll be back later and then you can use the car.” Those were Daphne Caruana Galizia’s last words, spoken to her son Matthew on 16 October 2017.

Matthew described to the court — for seemingly the hundredth time — how his mother came back moments later to grab a cheque book and then rushed out the door. She was headed to the bank, where her accounts had been frozen by a garnishee order connected to a libel suit by Malta’s then Economy Minister Chris Cardona. She never got there.

“She left again and then I heard the explosion,” he said. “It was very loud. I immediately knew that it was an explosion. I ran out.” 

He saw a column of black smoke boiling into the sky from somewhere down the hill, and ran towards it. 

“Patches of the road were on fire”, and pieces of metal and fragments of car formed a trail of debris leading to a field. “Then I saw pieces of flesh on the ground. I was somewhat confused. I couldn’t see the car.”

And then he saw a ball of fire in the middle of the field. Somehow, he got close enough to read part of the number plate.

“QQ… That was my mum’s car. There’s no way anyone could have survived this. Then I saw a leg blown off at the knee. I could hear the car horn blaring.”

“The whole car was on fire,” he told the court, “I could see nothing inside. I expected to see a silhouette or something but could see nothing.”

He sat on the side of the road and tried to call his father and brothers.

The family’s ordeal didn’t end with Daphne’s death or her funeral. Her son Matthew has been forced to relive these horrible final moments over and over again, in court case after the court case, and in more media interviews than anyone could count as the family fights for justice for their mother and her stories.

Last week’s testimony was given in the case against the men accused of supplying the car bomb — brothers Adrian and Robert Agius, and Jamie Vella — and accused hitman George Degiorgio.

The compilation of evidence procedures against those directly involved in the assassination has been going on for more than four years, requiring the family members of the slain journalist to sit just metres away from those accused of killing her as witnesses recount the details. And no trials have yet started so there is no immediate end in sight.

The family’s legal battles began within hours of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death. In Malta, magisterial inquiries are assigned by roster to whichever magistrate is on duty that day. The inquiry (separate from police investigations) looks into suspected crimes, calling witnesses and preserving evidence, before deciding whether charges should be filed.

On the day Daphne was killed, the duty magistrate was Consuelo Scerri Herrera, someone the journalist had frequently written about on her blog, and who had filed a libel suit against her.

The family filed an urgent appeal requesting that Scerri Herrera recuse herself from the investigation due to a conflict of interest. The magistrate visited the murder scene and summoned family members to court before finally agreeing to abstain from the case 17 hours after the request had been filed.

The Caruana Galizia family also had to fight for the removal of the deputy police commissioner and lead investigator Silvio Valletta from the case because he was married to a top government minister who had been the subject of critical reporting by the slain journalist. They succeeded, but only after filing a lawsuit in the constitutional court.

It would later emerge that Valletta was a close personal friend of accused mastermind Yorgen Fenech. He vacationed with the businessman on his yacht when Fenech was already the lead suspect. He also kept former chief of staff Keith Schembri informed of his investigation, and this information was passed to Fenech.

Other legal battles forced on Daphne’s sons and husband were more petty. Frustrated by the failure of police to question politicians named in the murder case, a large banner was hung from the facade of a privately owned building in Valletta that read, ‘Why aren’t Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in prison, Police Commissioner? Why isn’t your wife being investigated by the police, Joseph Muscat? Who paid for Daphne Caruana Galizia to be blown up after she asked these questions?’

When the banner was removed, they posted another. It was removed within 12 hours by the Planning Authority, with help from the police.

The family filed a constitutional case claiming a violation of their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court again ruled in their favour. The Planning Authority had exceeded its mandate and violated the rights of Daphne’s family by exercising what amounted to state censorship of private citizens.

“When you’re the victim of a terrible crime, you’d expect the authorities to be there to assist you,” Matthew said during a recent podcast interview, “but for us, it’s just been one long fight to make sure things are done properly.”

“I’ve had no time to mourn. It’s just been postponed since 2017 because my family and I haven’t had a chance to rest.”

As if fighting for the prosecution of everyone involved in the murder and coverup wasn’t enough, the Caruana Galizia family has also had to fight legal battles brought against Daphne before she was killed.

She died with over 40 libel suits still pending against her, 19 from businessman Silvio Debono’s DB Group alone. The rest had been filed by politicians, including disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi and former prime minister Joseph Muscat. The family inherited these lawsuits and is now facing potential responsibility for cases in which the sources were confidential and the main witness is dead.

Muscat brought a libel suit against Daphne for writing that his wife Michelle was the owner of Egrant, an offshore shell company revealed in the Panama Papers allegedly set up to receive kickbacks on corrupt projects.

In a letter published on 19 September 2019, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović urged the former prime minister to drop the suits, which he has continued to pursue for close to four years after the assassination. Muscat said he would only do so if the journalist’s heirs agreed to make a declaration stating that they accept the findings of the inconclusive Egrant inquiry that Muscat claimed exonerated him.

The Caruana Galizia family replied with a statement saying, “We will not concede to extortion by our public servants. Our position on not accepting blackmail will never change.”

One of the staunchest battles fought by Daphne’s family, civil society activists and advocates at the Council of Europe was over the government’s obligation to hold an independent public inquiry into her murder.

The government of Malta did everything it could to resist, claiming an inquiry would jeopardise the criminal proceedings then underway against the accused hitmen. When the Council of Europe issued an ultimatum, former prime minister Joseph Muscat tried to load the inquiry board with Labour Party loyalists and to limit the terms of reference.

In the end, the public inquiry’s long-awaited 400+ page report found the Maltese State responsible for Daphne’s death. Four months after the publication of the report, the government has done little to implement the board’s recommendations. 

In many ways, it feels as though nothing has changed. The trials against those accused of ordering the murder, supplying and planting the bomb continue to grind along at a glacial pace, fraught with judicial delays and spurious legal wrangling. The politicians whose names have come up again and again in the murder trials continue to enjoy impunity. And the online hate groups linked to the party in government that targeted and dehumanised Daphne Caruana Galizia during her life have now set their sights on her family, who they repeatedly brand as ‘traitors to Malta’.

Perhaps the cruellest attack perpetrated by these groups is to claim Daphne’s son Matthew was somehow responsible for his mother’s death because he had parked her car in a place where those who planted the bomb could get at it as if parking a car on the road is an invitation to plant a bomb.

The claim was repeated by a former Labour mayor, one of Malta government’s in-house lawyers that The Shift revealed was hired by his own daughter, who is the chair of a government agency, repeated the claim only last week on public radio.

While the prime minister condemned the statement, the government denied whistleblower status to the person with information on the nepotism that occurred.   

“Malta’s governing party worked hand in hand with murderers to throw suspicion for my mother’s assassination upon my family,” Matthew Caruana Galizia wrote on Twitter. “It has done little to undo the effect of propaganda, which we live with every day.”

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