Low expectations for reform as inquiry on journalist’s murder nears its end

The public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is expected to publish its findings on 15 July. 

The board’s determination to fight for justice has won it admiration abroad even as it came under intense political pressure at home.

The Maltese government did everything it could to resist its obligation to hold the inquiry under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, insisting it would jeopardise the criminal proceedings then under way against the accused hitmen. 

When the Council of Europe insisted after two years of campaigning by the family of the slain journalist, then prime minister Joseph Muscat attempted to load the board with Labour Party loyalists and to limit its terms of reference. 

The government only gave in under pressure from Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt, and after meetings with the Caruana Galizia family. 

Tasked with determining whether the State facilitated Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder or failed to prevent it, the details of testimony in the public inquiry raised alarming concerns about widespread corruption, political involvement in the plot, and efforts to obstruct justice by shielding those involved from the investigation.

In December 2020, Special Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Pieter Omtzigt, wrote, “In a few months, the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry has done more to expose the corruption, misgovernment and criminal conspiracies that plagued Malta at the time of her death than all of the endless, opaque and ineffectual magisterial inquiries put together”.

Despite the often-shocking revelations, none of the public officials involved in these acts have been charged.

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat resigned in disgrace in December 2019 after two months of street protests. 

Joseph Muscat resignation

He is still suing Daphne Caruana Galizia, more than three years after she was killed on his watch, over her report that his wife was the ultimate beneficial owner of a secret offshore structure revealed in the Panama Papers.  

He insists he will only drop the suit if the Caruana Galizia family “acknowledges” the results of a magisterial inquiry into the matter, the terms of which were written by Muscat himself and led to no answers. 

The magistrate who concluded an inquiry with no conclusion was soon after promoted to judge. 

A complicated web

Joseph Muscat’s name came up repeatedly in connection with corruption at the highest levels, carried out by public and police officials who answered directly to him. 

He also featured heavily in intimate chats found on the phone of Yorgen Fenech, who is accused of commissioning the journalist’s assassination. He has been questioned by police several times, but never charged.

His chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was charged with money laundering and other financial crimes in connection to the purchase of printing machines by Progress Press, publishers of The Times of Malta. 

Like Joseph Muscat, he received lavish gifts from Yorgen Fenech and featured heavily in intimate chats found on the accused mastermind’s phone. 

Schembri has never been charged in relation to Caruana Galizia’s murder, though Fenech claims he was the real mastermind. 

Konrad Mizzi, the minister who signed his name to every corrupt deal entered into by the Muscat administration, was also questioned by police but never charged. 

Former Economy Minister Chris Cardona was named repeatedly by the accused hitmen in connection with an alleged parallel plot to kill Caruana Galizia, an accusation he insists is “a frame-up”. He resigned from parliament soon afterJoseph Muscat. He has also been questioned by police but never charged. 

Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar was forced to resign from her cabinet role last week after an investigation by the Standards Commissioner found that she had accepted large sums of money from a property deal involving Yorgen Fenech, tried to evade tax, and failed to declare income in her parliamentary declaration of assets. 

Minister Carmelo Abela has been named by the accused hitmen in connection with a failed bank heist involving the hitman involved in the journalist’s death.  He continues to deny involvement in the crime, and remains in cabinet.

Carmelo Abela

The government gave a phantom job to self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma. Several other Labour Party loyalists were given lucrative positions within government institutions and agencies before Joseph Muscat was ejected from office. When testifying before the public inquiry, they all said they couldn’t remember anything.  

Muscat was replaced by his chosen successor and legal advisor, Robert Abela, whose campaign promise of “continuity” was reflected in his own attitude towards the public inquiry, which he accused of overstepping its mandate for partisan reasons, and of dragging things on so board members could take more pay.

Robert Abela

Government ministers and insiders weren’t the only untouchables connected to systemic corruption under Joseph Muscat. The heads of key regulatory authorities were also thoroughly compromised.

It’s a complicated web, involving a larger cast of characters that stretches from cabinet ministers to the heads of regulatory authorities to compromised top police officials, as testimony at the public inquiry has shown. 

Layers of cover

Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta vacationed with the accused murder mastermind on his yacht in September 2018, at a time when Fenech was already the lead suspect. At the time, Silvio Valletta was married to a Minister. He resigned from the force but was never charged.

Former Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar is being investigated for “possible collusion” after being caught holding secret meetings with an associate of middleman Melvin Theuma without the knowledge of the investigative team. He was removed in January 2020 — and given a lucrative consulting contract with the Home Affairs Ministry on the same day.  He has not been charged.

Ian Abdilla, former head of the police Economic Crimes Unit, admitted to the board that he failed to act on any of the Panama Papers revelations and did not question those at the helm of government exposed. He was removed from the unit but remains Assistant Police Commissioner. He has not been charged.

Former Attorney General Peter Grech admitted to the board that he issued written advice to the police “to tread very carefully on the Panama Papers”, which the slain journalist first brought to light in Malta. He was concerned about ‘national stability’. He retired in September 2020.  He has not been investigated or charged.

Had any of these law enforcement officials acted on the corruption first exposed by Daphne Caruana Galizia rather than shield top politicians from scrutiny, she would still be alive today.

The only police official to be charged is Ray Aquilina, a former superintendent from the Economic Crimes Unit suspected of leaking information on the murder investigation. 

The operators of accounting firm Nexia BT that set up all these offshore companies, Brian Tonna and Karl Cini, were charged with money laundering and other financial crimes in connection to former chief of staff Keith Schembri’s suspect deal with Malta’s leading newspaper, but they have not been charged in relation to any of the other corruption scandals exposed by Caruana Galizia. 

A grim picture

Malta’s failure to act against politicians linked to corruption and money laundering was a major factor in the country’s recent grey listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). 

Nearly four years after her death, evidence and testimonies indicate there are still people involved in the journalist’s murder and its cover up that have yet to be investigated and charged. 

Apart from Yorgen Fenech, the only people charged in connection with the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia are the accused hitmen George and Alfred Degiorgio, and Robert Agius and Jamie Vella, the men alleged to have supplied them with the bomb. 

Court cases in Malta drag on for years. Most of these cases are still at the stage of compilation of evidence; the actual trials have not yet begun. 

Melvin Theuma, the middleman who arranged the hit, was given a presidential pardon to testify against Yorgen Fenechwho is accused of being the mastermind. The Degiorgio’s accomplice, Vince Muscat, also turned State’s witnessin exchange for a plea bargain deal.

The public inquiry has been given access to the contents of Yorgen Fenech’s phone, which is expected to shed further light on intimate connections between the accused mastermind, Maltese politicians, and high ranking police officials. It remains to be seen whether any of them will be held responsible for their crimes.

The board is scheduled to deliver its findings to the prime minister and attorney general on 15 July, and will publish the report within eight working days, according to the terms of reference. The prime minister must also table the report in parliament within five working days of receiving it.

It’s then up to the government to decide what to do with it. In a context where the government is facing other pressures in the months leading up to an election, the Labour Party will have difficulty justifying with its supporters the implemention of reforms resulting from a public inquiry on the murder of a journalist the same party spent years branding as the enemy. 

Joseph Muscat may have resigned, but his chosen replacement ran a campaign on ‘continuinty’ and the tactics have not changed. 

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