Suspect’s illness sparks fears that justice won’t be achieved for slain journalist

Keith Schembri, the power behind disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s throne, has been missing court sittings again because he’s reportedly receiving urgent treatment for an aggressive brain tumour. 

His co-defendant, his father Alfio, was also granted permission to miss court so he could be with his son. Although he attended a following session.

Schembri is facing criminal charges involving money laundering and forged documents, among a list of financial crimes, but he was due to be interrogated over suspicions that he leaked information to key suspects which hampered or endangered the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation.

Police confirmed that all further questioning has been put on hold while the former chief of staff undergoes medical treatment, saying there’s no point interrogating a suspect who may not be of sound mind. They also confirmed that this will impact other unrelated investigations.

This is Schembri’s second battle with cancer. He reportedly received treatment for a tumour in his eye, which, according to testimony in the Caruana Galizia murder case, was paid for by accused mastermind Yorgen Fenech. The businessman traveled to the United States with Schembri in 2016 and paid tens of thousands of euros for his treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Fenech, in turn, has said that Schembri was the one who commissioned the journalist’s murder.

Schembri’s name has also been raised countless times in testimony by middleman turned State’s witness Melvin Theuma. Last week, a former member of the former prime minister’s security detail testified that Schembri had sent him to “calm down” the emotionally volatile middleman in the months following the brutal assassination. 

Schembri has never been fully investigated in connection with any of these allegations, and questions have been raised on whether efforts are underway to remove him from further scrutiny.

After news of his illness was reported in the press, Schembri’s mother wrote on Facebook, “How I wish I lived in a dictatorship where freedom of speech doesn’t exist. They exploit freedom of speech to destroy families and speculate on people’s health before the results have even come out yet”.

Labour Party trolls picked up on the post, flooding online comment boards and discussion forums with the narrative that reporting on Schembri’s condition and its potential implications for the murder case is “taking pleasure in someone else’s ill health”, “bitter”, “evil”, and intended to “destroy families”.

Schembri’s potentially terminal diagnosis raises serious questions over whether justice will be achieved for the slain journalist and her family. Will the truth come out if the man at the centre of suspected State involvement is unable to be investigated or charged?

These are difficult questions to ask given the circumstances, but illness does not absolve one of responsibility for alleged crimes that resulted in at least one violent death, and that affected every Maltese citizen and taxpayer. It has been more than three years since the journalist was killed before Schembri was arrested, with court proceedings showing obstruction by government officials and those holding key positions in the police.

In the meantime, former prime minister Joseph Muscat has suddenly decided to sue a citizen over a year-old Facebook post that said Muscat was responsible for Caruana Galizia’s murder.

The citizen’s comment, that Muscat “blew her up”, echoed a resolution adopted by the European Parliament last month which said the Maltese government had allowed the assassination to take place. 

Muscat seems determined to take the Facebook post literally, possibly in attempt to get the courts to declare the obvious — that he did not trigger the explosive device which killed the journalist — thus indirectly censuring any further implications that his government has blood on its hands. 

It’s not known why he decided to launch the lawsuit now, or whether the timing is connected to Schembri’s illness. When testifying before the public inquiry into the Caruana Galizia assassination, Schembri had told the board he “never did anything behind the prime minister’s back”.

This isn’t the first time Joseph Muscat has used the filing of a lawsuit to ‘exonerate’ himself from serious accusations. 

When Caruana Galizia reported that the prime minister’s wife was the owner of a secret offshore company set up to receive kickbacks, he called it “the biggest ever political lie to ever take place in the history of the country”, taking the accusation to extremes and filing libel suits against the journalist. He then structured an inquiry into the allegations on his own terms, which found nothing, as expected.

These events took place in the lead up to the 2017 election, when anti-corruption rallies were being held across the country. Does the fact that another election is imminent reveal a pattern?

And where is Konrad Mizzi, the other side of the Schembri-Muscat triad, and the minister who signed his name to every corruption-tainted contract carried out by the government? He seems to have vanished from the public eye.

In the meantime, the hitmen on trial for the journalist’s murder have mentioned a former and current government minister in their testimony, and police have questioned Minister Carmelo Abela twice in connection with a failed 2010 bank heist that ended in a shootout.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has defended him to the hilt, calling the accusations a “coordinated strategy” between criminals and the opposition Nationalist Party to damage the government.

In a normal country, the minister would have resigned, and every politician named in court in connection to the journalist’s murder would have been dismissed from office and investigated without fear or favour. 

But this is Malta, where 43 months have passed since a journalist, mother, wife and daughter was torn apart with a car bomb to conceal the systemic corruption of a State run by Joseph Muscat. 

Last week’s developments raise serious concerns that the full extent of this corruption may never be known, and those responsible may never be held accountable for their crimes.

COVID has given the government some respite, when no street protests – the kind that led to the resignation of the former prime minister and his right hand man Keith Schembri – could not be held. As bars and restaurants in the country start to open, and the government is even offering to pay tourists to visit the country, the authorities remain adamant to clamp down on events. 

The fight for justice for Caruana Galizia remains an uphill struggle, and yet civil society’s determination to see this through gives hope that, for once, the powers that be will finally be held accountable despite the obstacles. 

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