Malta suspends top policeman after inquiry into journalist's murder

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FILE PHOTO: People gather at the Great Siege Square calling for the resignation of Joseph Muscat, in Valletta
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VALLETTA (Reuters) - A senior Maltese police official was suspended on Tuesday after criticism by an independent inquiry into the murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Police said a senior officer was suspended in line with disciplinary regulations, pending investigations. They gave no further details.

The statement followed media reports that Assistant Commissioner Ian Abdilla had been suspended after being called in for a meeting with the police chief, Commissioner Angelo Gafa. Abdilla could not be immediately reached for comment.

Assistant commissioner is the third-highest rank in the Maltese police force.

Abdilla was head of the Economic Crimes Unit when Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb in 2017.

He was criticised at the time for failing to investigate the Panama Papers, which revealed secret companies owned by then Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and the prime minister's chief of staff, Keith Schembri.

Mizzi had said at the time that his Panama company was for family financial planning and Schembri, who heads a business empire, said his was for asset management. They both denied any criminal activity linked to the businesses and no evidence has been produced of illegal transfer of funds.

Matthew Caruana Galizia, son of the murdered journalist, has accused Abdilla of having spent years sitting on multiple reports of high-level corruption.

Abdilla never replied directly to the claims but has always denied any wrongdoing. He has never faced any criminal charges.

The inquiry said the government had to bear responsibility for the journalist's murder because it created a climate of impunity.

It said the police "did hardly anything" to investigate media reports of corruption and that there was "direct and suspicious interference by Schembri in police investigations."

It found that Abdilla twice met Schembri to discuss excerpts of investigators' reports which concerned Schembri. He told the inquiry he had merely advised Schembri to speak to a lawyer.

Schembri has always denied wrongdoing and was not available to comment on Tuesday.

Businessman Yorgen Fenech is accused of complicity to commit the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder and is awaiting trial. He denies all wrongdoing.

Also awaiting trial are two men accused of having set off the car bomb. A third man pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain and was jailed for 15 years.

(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna, editing by Gavin Jones and Angus MacSwan)

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