No one has yet been found guilty of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia but more than two years on from the car bomb that killed her in October 2017, after the investigation appeared to have stalled, there have at last been a welter of developments that have encompassed some of the most powerful people in Malta.
The journalist was murdered for her dogged investigation of corruption in the island nation, while unravelling the Maltese connections in the tangled offshore financial web exposed in the Panama Papers – a trove of documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (see Commonwealth Updates 2016 and 2017). Before that she had long been making enemies among politicians and financial figures in the Mediterranean nation, most notably through her blog, Running Commentary, which sometimes had more readers than all the country’s newspapers put together . Among her targets were alleged links between the country’s political, business and criminal elites, money-laundering, smuggling fuel and the Maltese government’s controversial sale of European Union passports in return for investment (see Commonwealth Updates 2015 and 2017). Her enemies called her a witch but she was lauded by many, such as Meryl Streep, star of The Laundromat, an earnest comedy based on the Panama Papers. In an open letter, Streep paid tribute to ‘investigative journalists and especially female journalists’, naming Caruana Galizia as a ‘modern-day Cassandra’.
In 2017, shortly after her assassination, the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, promised to leave no stone unturned in finding her killers. Two years on, he was himself becoming increasingly drawn into the ever-widening affair after his friend and closest aide, Keith Schembri, was implicated and quit . In 2013, aged 39, Muscat was one of the youngest prime ministers in the world, when his Labour Party (PL) swept the Nationalist Party (PN) from power after 15 years in opposition. A crowd of several thousand people followed proceedings on big screens and roared its approval outside the Castille palace as he was sworn in. Muscat told the press that the people had demanded a change not only in the government but also in how politics was done. Seven years on, the huge crowds in the streets of Valletta were shouting for him to go, fed up with how politics was done under his government, and 1 December he resigned, speaking of the need for a ‘fresh page’.
Though he has not himself been named as a person of interest in the case, Muscat admitted: ‘Everyone knows Ms Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of mine.’ Months before her death she wrote: ‘I know more than anybody alive in Malta today what it is like to have to contend with a constant onslaught from the Labour Party’s immense and truly evil propaganda-and-attack machine, because I have been the target of its relentless assaults for almost three decades .’ Muscat said after his resignation that he had paid ‘the highest political price for a dark episode’ but added that he was ‘sorry for what happened’ and proud that under his tenure people had been arrested and charged with the killing.
The chain of events that brought down Muscat, who opened the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta with a pledge to fight corruption, began with the arrest of two brothers and a third suspect not long after Caruana Galizia’s assassination. George and Alfred Degiorgio, and Vincent Muscat (no relation to the former prime minister), were also charged with criminal use of explosives, being involved in organised crime and criminal conspiracy. They denied all the charges.
Police inquiries investigation dragged on, with apparently little progress. Ana Gomes, a member of the European parliament who last year led an EU mission to examine the rule of law and money-laundering in Malta, said: ‘The culture of impunity in Malta … fosters corruption, organised financial criminality and state capture,’ she said. ‘And it was that culture that created the conditions for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.’ The investigation was taken up by the Daphne Project. Led by a French non-profit organisation, Forbidden Stories, the initiative coordinates 18 media groups, including Die Zeit, Le Monde, the Guardian and the New York Times, to continue the work of the murdered journalist. By April 2018 the Reuters reporter Stephen Grey was able to detail the events around the murder.
In return for the offer of a reduced sentence, Vince Muscat began to provide information. He named a taxi driver, Melvin Theuma, as the alleged middleman linking the three suspects with whoever ordered the assassination and told police they had been paid €150,000 for the hit, Reuters reported. After at first planning to use a rifle, the brothers instead decided on a bomb, which was bought from Maltese gangsters and supplied by the Italian mafia, he said. In return for a pardon, Theuma then alleged that Yorgen Fenech was the mastermind behind the plot. One of Malta’s richest men, Fenech was arrested by armed police as his luxury yacht left Portomaso harbour on 20 November.
Fenech was chief executive of one of Malta’s biggest companies, the Tumas Group – a property conglomerate with assets of €370m that appeared in the Paradise Papers, another leaked cache of documents on offshore financial holdings. He was subsequently charged with complicity in the murder of Caruana Galizia. He denies any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to this charge and to membership of a criminal gang and conspiracy to cause an explosion.
Fenech, in turn, implicated Schembri, who admitted being friends with Fenech but denied his accusations of any link to the murder or corruption, and Fenech’s claim that he had leaked information about the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s assassination or that he had tried to help the tycoon escape from Malta. He admitted twice meeting Theuma, the self-confessed middleman in the plot, at government offices but denied the meetings were linked to the murder. Fenech also called for the lead investigator, Keith Arnaud, to be taken off the case, claiming that he was close to Schembri.
Schembri and another key government figure, the tourism minister Konrad Mizzi (a former energy and health minister), resigned days later. Mizzi said he resigned ‘in light of political, extraordinary and general circumstances in the country’, adding: ‘I have done nothing wrong from a criminal point of view.’
Reuters revealed in December that accounts in Dubai of 17 Black Ltd – an hitherto secret offshore company that the news agency had identified in November 2018 as belonging to Fenech – had been shut down last April and cheques for $1.7m returned to him after the United Arab Emirates’ Financial Intelligence Unit deemed Fenech to be too ‘high risk’. Caruana Galizia had blogged about 17 Black being linked to Maltese politicians but this has not been proven. Reuters said copies of the cheques had been passed to the Daphne Project.
Caruana Galizia had found through the Panama Papers that Schembri and Mizzi had set up companies in Panama within days of taking office. Schembri and Mizzi do not dispute setting up the companies but say the companies were just to manage their private wealth and denied any wrongdoing. They both said they had no knowledge of any link between 17 Black, which had been due to make payments to their companies, and Fenech. Another claim of Caruana Galizia – that Muscat’s wife, Michelle, had also set up a Panamanian company – was fiercely denied by the prime minister, who called for a judicial inquiry to clear their name. After a year, this did exonerate the couple of any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the European Commission urged the Maltese government to fast-track measures to end political interference in criminal cases. The justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, said recent developments in the Caruana Galizia case had highlighted systemic problems with Malta’s judicial independence and the autonomy of prosecutions, as raised by the EU last July. This followed a critical report on the investigation and the rule of law in Malta by the Council of Europe’s rapporteur, the Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt. He told the Guardian in October: ‘Individual officers may be doing their best, but the approach of the police force as a whole, and of the politicians responsible for it, does not match the prime minister’s promise to leave no stone unturned.’ His report queried the failure to obtain key evidence and testimonies, and indicated conflicts of interest and allegations that police warned suspects before their arrests. The Maltese justice minister said the report was ‘riddled with inaccurate and gratuitous statements’ and said the government would be rebutting the points made. However, Omtzigt said he was still waiting for the government to make its points. ‘Since they are unable to produce that list I take that for them to say that the report is fairly accurate,’ he told the Maltese news site The Shift. A month earlier, the Council of Europe’s legal committee had adopted Omtzigt’s report despite Malta raising nearly 50 amendments.
On 11 January 2020, PL members overwhelmingly chose Robert Abela, a lawyer and MP, as the new leader of the ruling party over Chris Fearne, a surgeon and deputy prime minister. The son of a former president, Abela was sworn in as prime minister on 13 January. The 42-year-old prime minister said he would focus on social issues, such as living standards, and promised to strengthen the rule of law and good governance. He will have his work cut out restoring the tarnished reputation of the island nation’s politics.