2019 Malta political crisis
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The 2019 Malta political crisis is an ongoing political and institutional crisis within the Republic of Malta following the uncovering of alleged links between government officials and the 2017 assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi resigned following the arrest of businessman Yorgen Fenech in connection with the murder.
On 1 December 2019 Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced his intention to resign on 12 January 2020 after increased pressure from protestors. An EU mission has called for his immediate resignation. Constitutional experts, legal bodies and other representatives have stated Muscat's decision to remain in office until January and to have a six week parliamentary recess over Christmas has led to an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
- 1 Background
- 2 Persons involved in the crisis
- 3 Timeline
- 4 Reactions
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Malta has enjoyed a financial boom since accession to the EU in 2004, fueled by online gambling, crypto-currency exchanges, the sale of citizenship (EU-citizen), and a financial centre with a reputation for lax controls on money laundering and tax evasion. According to The Guardian, the country has been used as a gateway into Europe for money from Libya, Azerbaijan, Russia and even Venezuela.
In 2018, the European Central Bank revoked the licence of a bank called Pilatus, first investigated by the journalist Caruana Galizia, after its Iranian owner was arrested on sanctions-busting charges by US prosecutors. Among other things, Caruana Galizia wrote about gifts and money from the presidential family in Azerbaijan to Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his wife and connections between opposition leader Adrian Delia and a prostitution ring in London.
Persons involved in the crisis
Daphne Caruana Galizia
Daphne Caruana Galizia was described as "one-woman-Wikileaks" and the most important, visible and fearless journalists of the country. She ran a popular blog called Running Commentary, which investigated allegations of corruption and other criminal wrongdoing which Caruana Galizia alleged, ran into the highest levels of Maltese government. In a murder plot, she got killed in a car bomb attack to her Peugeot 108 on 16 October 2017.
Yorgen Fenech is a well-known figure in Malta. He has served as head of the Tumas business group and a director of energy company Electrogas. Fenech resigned from both positions in 2019.
He was identified in 2018 as being the owner of a Dubai-registered company, called 17 Black. The company was listed in the Panama Papers. Caruana Galizia had written about 17 Black eight months before her death, alleging the company had links to the Joseph Muscat's chief of staff Keith Schembri and to former energy minister Konrad Mizzi. The political blogger Manuel Delia assumption is: Fenech wanted to cover up a bribe scandal, which Caruana had uncovered. Yorgen Fenech's "17 Black" company was to spend millions on offshore accounts of several Labor Government ministers. Evidence had been found only after her murder.
Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta at the break out of the crisis, promised a fair investigation after the murder plot. In November 2019, clues pointed directly to the immediate circle of the head of government in the case. There was evidence that Muscat had known Fenech's role in the Caruana Galizia case since 2017, because his secret service bugged Fenech's telephone and was reading the logs.
Keith Schembri was chief of staff of the Office of the Prime Minister. He is said to be one of the most powerful persons in Maltese politics. Schembri was the subject of Caruana Galizia's last blog post, minutes before she got killed. Caruana Galizia alleged he had benefited from secretive shell companies.
Schembri was a successful businessman before he switched to politics. His Kasco Holding bought paper and sold it to the printers in Malta with a good margin and expanded the business to the trade of printing machines. His many clients included the oldest newspaper of the country, the Times of Malta. Since the Times of Malta was unable to pay its bills during the financial crisis, according to the newspaper, Schembri often put pressure on them. Apparently he demanded good press for himself and his growing business empire. Kasco also invested in beverage brands, restaurants and luxury furniture. In 2008, Joseph Muscat brought his friend Schembri to the Labor Party. Schembri updated the stale communication style of Parti Labourista. In 2013, the party won the parliamentary elections and Muscat became premier. Schembri was appointed as the "Chief of staff", a newly created position in the organization chart of the ruling government.
When Schembri was arrested, the police investigation drew close to members of Joseph Muscat's government. Police released Schembri some days later, announcing he was no longer viewed as a person of interest. The family of Caruana Galizia sees Schembri as one of the most suspected persons in the murder plot.
Konrad Mizzi was tourism minister but stepped down, saying it was his duty to allow Mr Muscat's government to continue. Mizzi was earlier removed from his post as health and energy minister in 2016 after it emerged that he had set up a company in Panama, listed in the Panama Papers. He said, he had merely made arrangements for managing family assets and had done nothing wrong. In his health role he oversaw the part-privatisation of Malta's health service.
Melvin Theuma is a taxi-driver from Valletta. He is linked to criminal enterprises and was arrested in November 2019 in connection with a separate anti-money laundering investigation. Theuma offered police information about the 2017 murder in exchange for immunity from prosecution. He is described as a middle-man between the commissioners and the murders.
Lawrence Cutajar was responsibel for the investigation in the assernation case of Caruana; he was commissioner of the Malta Police Force. In January 2020 Cutajar resigned as comissioner of police. Malta's former head of government, Joseph Muscat always refused to deputize Cutajar. His successor, Abela Malta's former head of government, Joseph Muscat, recently resigned because of alleged involvement of people around him. He had always refused to deputize Cutajar. His successor, Robert Abela, promised to review the police chief's appointment process.
Caruana Galizia family
The relatives of Caruana Galizia initiated legal action against Muscat on 2 December 2019. The family demanded the immediate resignation of the prime minister, stipulating that his remaining in power was not to be tolerated by all who cared about justice: "His role in investigating the murder of our wife and mother is unlawful."
On 16 October 2017, the investigative journalist Caruana Galizia died in a car bomb attack close to her home, attracting widespread local and international reactions. In December 2017, three men were arrested in connection with the car bomb attack.
Important information from a witness in 2019
On November 13, 2019 the spaniel sniffer dog Peter was screening passengers when he alerted his handlers of Malta custom to the smell of cash.[clarification needed] Customs reportedly found €210,000 in the belongings of Melvin Theuma, preparing to board a flight to Istanbul.[clarification needed] The economic crimes unit were called and a day later, the incident led to the arrest of Theuma. Under questioning by police, Theuma made the claim that he had acted as intermediary in the contract killing of journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. When Theuma called for his lawyers, he asked for Jason Azzopardi and his colleague Simon Busuttil. Both are the Caruana Galizia family lawyers and both are members of parliament for the opposition Nationalist Party. The Guardian described both as "the forefront of the battle to hold Muscat’s government to account."
On 19 November 2019 Muscat announced a deal with a star-witness (which later turns out to be Melvin Theuma). This person should provide comprehensive information about the murder case and other crimes, but he receives impunity.
On 20 November Fenech attempted to leave Malta on his private yacht, with the Armed Forces of Malta intercepting his boat and arresting him as a "person of interest" in the Caruana Galizia murder enquiry. Maltese media alleged that Fenech was familiar with Melvin Theuma, a taxi driver with links to criminal enterprises who had been described in local media as a potential "middleman" in the murder.
On 23 November 2019 Fenech offered himself as a witness. He promised information about the murder case and other offenses, in exchange for impunity.
Fenech's defense tried to call the whole process into question. This was successful - Fenech was released on 29 November 2019. The businessman was prejudiced in public, so his defence said, that he could not hope for a proper investigation and a fair trial. He argued that the second main suspect, Keith Schembri, had not been charged. Also he argued, that Schembri has built the star witness Melvin Theuma against Fenech and paid for it. In addition, the police inspector in charge of the case had a close connection to Schembri and was therefore biased.
Keith Schembri and other governmental staff involved
On 30 November 2019 an indictment was filed against Fenech in Valletta, and he was accused of complicity in the murder of Caruana Galizia, amongst other charges. Fenech pleaded not guilty. He has been back in jail since November 30, 2019.
Adrian Vella, who was a personal physician to Fenech, was also arrested. Vella was named as a director of a number of companies registered or managed in Panama. He is said to have served as a secret messenger between Schembri and Fenech.
Yorgen Fenech, in his court statement, accused Schembri of being the mastermind behind the Caruana Galizia murder. Schembri was also accused of influencing Fenech in order to frame Chris Cardona as responsible for the murder.
Despite calling for a presidential pardon, Yorgen Fenech was not granted one. This was decided by the Cabinet in a long session in the night of 29 November 2019.
Muscat announced his resignation on 1 December 2019 in a televised speech, saying he would step down after Labour Party internal elections on 12 January 2020. He informed the President of Malta, George Vella, that he would be resigning his duties once his successor had been elected. His decision was influenced by the investigation into the Caruana Galizia murder.
About 4000 Maltese blocked Muscat and other MPs from leaving the Parliament Building in Valletta on 3 December 2019. The Nationalist Party announced a boycott of any parliament session until Muscat stepped down. Several hundred people from the Labour Party met for a demonstration against the anti-government protests.
On the same day, Reporters sans Frontieres, together with the relatives of Caruana Galizia, filed a lawsuit against three of the alleged key figures in the murder case in France. The lawsuit was filed with the Finance Prosecutor's Office and the Paris Public Prosecutor's Office accusing Yorgen Fenech, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi of murder and bribery.
An EU Parliament delegation announced to come to Malta in early December 2019 to monitor the rule of law and to hold talks with government officials in Malta.
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'I don't think we know exactly whether he is being questioned or what he is being questioned about, so let's take it one step at a time', [the PM] said"
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