Police investigating the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have released the prime minister’s closest aide following an “intensive investigation” into allegations that he was the mastermind behind the killing.
Keith Schembri was arrested on Tuesday, just after resigning as head of the office of the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, following allegations made by a prominent businessman who is seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for providing evidence that could solve the case.
Malta police announced Schembri’s release on Thursday night. The news came during an emergency cabinet meeting called to discuss the case.
“This evening Keith Schembri was released, after an intensive investigation into the allegations that were made against him in connection with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder,” police stated. “At this stage the police no longer feel the need to hold Keith Schembri under arrest.”
Schembri’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
In a night of high drama in Valletta, ministers began arriving at the leader’s office in the Auberge de Castille just after 8pm and remained locked in discussions more than four hours later. They were joined by the police commissioner and the attorney general.
With the EU’s smallest member state under unprecedented international scrutiny, Muscat’s cabinet had gathered to discuss whether to grant a presidential pardon to a key suspect, Yorgen Fenech.
The businessman was arrested last week while trying to leave Malta aboard his yacht. He is seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for naming those he alleges were co-conspirators in the plot to assassinate Caruana Galizia. One of those Fenech has named is Schembri.
As they debated, Fenech was in the nearby court house, which had been opened after hours in order to hear a constitutional case filed by his lawyers. The businessman’s case is that Muscat is conflicted and cannot be involved in the decision about whether to grant him a pardon.
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, 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.
During Thursday’s evening 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”.
Malta’s constitution requires presidential pardons to be granted on the advice of the cabinet. Muscat has said last week he would take the decisions alone, having been delegated that power by his cabinet.
“Since this case is about persons very close to the prime minister, it should not be the prime minister or a member of his cabinet to give such advice,” the letter from Fenech’s lawyers states.
“Yorgen Fenech has a right for his request to be considered without intervention by persons who may have a an interest for such a pardon not to be granted.”
A judge granted an injunction and the case is due to return to court on Friday.
This week a doctor who knew both men was questioned by police on suspicion that he had agreed to pass notes between them. The doctor, Adrian Vella, was arrested on Wednesday. It is believed he may have passed two typed, unsigned notes to Fenech on behalf of Schembri.
Fenech is alleged to have claimed to police he was handed one of the notes after his arrest and while he was under observation at the Mater Dei hospital in Tal-Qroqq.
Last Saturday Fenech was given a temporary reprieve from questioning when he was admitted to hospital with chest pain. On the hospital’s recommendation, he was not interrogated for the next 24 hours. It is during this period that Fenech is said to claim he received the note.
Vella could not be reached for comment.
Three men were arrested in December 2017 for planting the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia. They are awaiting trial and police have been working to identify the individuals who ordered and paid for her assassination. Following a series of arrests over the last two weeks, details have begun to emerge.
Fenech is a co-owner of a power station, along with the Germany company Siemens and Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil and gas business, Socar. The power station produces electricity for the grid in Malta under a government contract won in a public tender.
Mizzi, the minister who oversaw the contract award, resigned last week. He denies any wrongdoing.