Anger from protesters as Joseph Muscat says his job is to ‘see this investigation concluded’
Juliette Garside in Valletta – The Guardian
People hold up photos of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Prime minister Joseph Muscat has refused to leave until the investigation into her killing is complete. Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters
Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, emerged from a marathon cabinet meeting at 3am on Friday to announce that he would stay in the job until the investigation into the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was complete.
In a night of high drama in Valletta, Muscat had summoned ministers to his office to decide whether to grant a presidential pardon to a businessman arrested last week on suspicion of masterminding the journalist’s assassination in October 2017.
The businessman, Yorgen Fenech, was apprehended while trying to leave Malta on his yacht. Since being taken into custody, he has requested a presidential pardon in return for providing information on other alleged conspirators.
Muscat said he had assembled his cabinet to ask them to decide on whether to grant Fenech immunity from prosecution. “I left the final decision with my colleagues, who decided that it’s not fitting to grant a pardon,” he announced at a press conference, flanked by members of his cabinet.
They in turn had followed the advice of the chief of police and the attorney general, Muscat said.
The ministers made their decision at the end of a six-and-a-half-hour meeting, at a moment when the EU’s smallest member state is under unprecedented international scrutiny, with politicians across Europe raising concerns about the rule of law in Malta.
Caruana Galizia, Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, was a thorn in the side of Muscat’s government. In February 2016, she used a leak of offshore information known as the Panama Papers to reveal that Muscat’s energy minister, Konrad Mizzi, and his old friend and chief of staff, Keith Schembri, had become the beneficiaries of secretive Panama shell companies shortly after entering office.
The journalist became a target in Malta’s tribal two-party political arena, with her personal security increasingly under threat. On 16 October 2017, she was killed when a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of her rental car was remotely detonated.
The prime minister had been expected to face a leadership challenge at the emergency cabinet meeting from his deputy, Chris Fearne. Muscat, who came to power in 2013 and has remained popular with his followers, emerged from the gathering still at the helm of his country. However, he repeated a promise to leave once those who ordered the killing had been identified.
“I have made a very firm commitment that I want this case to be closed under my watch. I think the authorities have already delivered what many thought could not be delivered, that is major breakthroughs in the investigation. My job is to see this investigation concluded.”
His decision to stay on was greeted with howls of fury from protesters who had waited outside until the early hours. The journalist’s son Paul Caruana Galizia, who attended the press conference, shouted at ministers as he left the building.
While police have made a number of significant arrests, none of those taken into custody have been charged.
As ministers gathered in the Auberge de Castille overlooking the harbour, Fenech was filing a constitutional challenge in the capital’s courthouse.
Under questioning from police, he is said to have alleged that Caruana Galizia’s assassination was masterminded by Schembri, who until his resignation on Monday night was Muscat’s chief of staff.
Schembri was arrested on Tuesday but was released on Thursday night with police saying that, after an “intensive investigation”, they no longer felt the need to hold him under arrest. Schembri’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
During Thursday’s hearing, Fenech’s lawyers deposited in court a letter to Malta’s president, George Vella, formally asking for a pardon. It stated that Fenech was ready to supply information related to Schembri, Mizzi, Chris Cardona, who suspended himself from the post of economy minister earlier this week, and others. The letter described all those he was prepared to give evidence against as “close to the prime minister”.
Cardona declared upon resigning that he had “absolutely no connection with the case”, but had decided to step back “in the national interest” following questioning by police last weekend. Mizzi, who resigned on Tuesday, said he had not committed any crime but was leaving “in light of political, extraordinary and general circumstances in the country”.