Yorgen Fenech tells court Malta PM’s former chief of staff gave him updates on investigation
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, and Reuters in Valletta
The Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech, who was charged last week over the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photograph: Yara Nardi/Reuters
A wealthy businessman who is the prime suspect in the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has told a court in Malta that he received regular tipoffs about the investigation from the former government chief of staff Keith Schembri.
Yorgen Fenech, who was charged last week for allegedly masterminding the 2017 killing, appeared in court to seek the removal of the police chief leading the case, saying he was too close to Schembri.
His testimony in a packed courtroom piled further pressure on Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, who has said he will stand down next month after his party elects a new leader. The prime minister is a friend of Schembri, who resigned last week and was briefly arrested in connection with the investigation. He was released without charge and has denied any wrongdoing.
Fenech has denied accusations of complicity in the murder and has instead blamed his close friend Schembri, who was Muscat’s righthand man and the architect of his two electoral victories. Fenech said Schembri had passed on information from briefings that the chief investigator, Keith Arnaud, gave at Muscat’s office. This meant he knew swiftly about key developments, including that his own phone had been tapped, Fenech said.
Schembri’s lawyer did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Fenech’s testimony. Arnaud made no immediate comment but the police last week issued a statement saying there was no reason for his removal and that the investigation was proving effective.
Fenech did not address the murder allegations levelled against him and is due back in court on 10 December. But he said that following his arrest, Schembri managed to pass him notes on two occasions telling him what to say in interrogations.
He ignored the advice and instead implicated Schembri. At that point, he said police rushed to charge him and skated over the allegations he was making. “But all the recordings and evidence link Schembri with the murderers,” he told the court hearing.
The self-confessed middleman in the murder, Melvin Theuma, who has been given legal immunity in return for providing evidence, told a court on Wednesday that Fenech was the sole mastermind behind the killing.
Caruana Galizia was a campaigning journalist who regularly accused government ministers and business leaders of corruption. On Thursday, a European parliament delegation to the Mediterranean country said the integrity of the murder inquiry remained at risk while Muscat was still in power.
Muscat was “not convincing” over why he should delay his resignation until mid-January, said Sven Giegold, a German Green MEP who took part in a two-day emergency mission to Malta.
The European parliament delegation welcomed progress in the murder inquiry but said its integrity remained at risk while Muscat stayed in office. “The next 40 days will be crucial, also for trust in the integrity of the investigation,” said a statement from the MEPs.
Giegold said Muscat told the group he would not be in a position to destroy evidence in the case. The MEP described their encounter this week as “not a friendly meeting” .
Giegold said Muscat seemed quite different to the “very self-confident” man he recalled from previous meetings. “This time it was totally different. He was on the defensive. He admitted misjudgment when it came to his chief of staff, Keith Schembri.”
Giegold said EU leaders would find themselves in a difficult position if Muscat attended a European council summit next week. “The decision to stay on for four more weeks puts Malta into difficulty and puts Europe into difficulty, because who wants to shake hands at the Euro summit with this prime minister,” he said.
The MEP said Malta’s troubles went beyond the Caruana Galizia case. He also criticised the new European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, for not focusing on wider problems in the EU’s smallest member state.
Reuters contributed to this report