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.
Flanked by members of his cabinet, Muscat announced at a press conference that Fenech’s request had been rejected. “I left the final decision with my colleagues, who decided that it’s not fitting to grant a pardon,” he said.
The six-and-a-half hour meeting came 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. Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing president of the European commission, speaking on his final day in office, declined to comment on the ongoing criminal investigation in Malta but expressed anxiety over the developing crisis. He said: “I am worried. In more than one country the rule of law is not respected enough … I am highly concerned.”
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.
In a separate case showing how corruption allegations have closed in on the government, a court ordered three cabinet ministers on Friday to face a criminal probe over a hospital contract. Two of the ministers had already left the cabinet this week over links to Fenech as the murder case unfolded.
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”.