By Crispian Balmer and Stephen Grey
VALLETTA (Reuters) - When a bomb exploded on the island of Malta three years ago, killing a campaigning journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, it sent a tremor across Europe, seeming to sum up a growing criminal threat to those who challenged corruption.
In the days after the Oct. 16, 2017, attack, family and friends questioned whether the murderers would ever be found. In the previous 15 years, there had been 27 other criminal explosions on Malta that had killed five people. Only two of the cases had been solved, police records show.
Fast forward three years, and, while no-one has been convicted, three men have been charged with planting and triggering the bomb, while one of the country's richest businessmen, Yorgen Fenech, is in jail accused of masterminding her death. They deny the charges.
In addition, a self-confessed "middleman" named Melvin Theuma has been given a presidential pardon in return for providing evidence, including hours of secret recordings of conversations between himself and Fenech.
Paul Caruana Galizia, one of Daphne's three sons, said the truth was emerging, albeit painfully slowly. "Those who wanted to silence my mother made a terrible miscalculation," he said.
Still, evidence from preliminary hearings and a parallel public inquiry, set up by Malta's government, has done little to assuage concerns raised by Caruana Galizia's reporting that the smallest country in the European Union may be riddled with corruption.
Legal hearings since the arrest last November of Fenech have portrayed a police investigation bedeviled by leaks. Fenech is a 38-year-old multimillionaire with an array of holdings, including a stake in the country's main electricity generator, Electrogas Malta. Evidence presented by the prosecution and Fenech's defence team indicated that the accused men had access to inside knowledge throughout the police inquiry of Caruana Galizia's murder, including tip-offs about imminent arrests and surveillance. This inside knowledge, court evidence suggests, led the accused to use encryption for their phone calls and to wipe devices of data.
In court testimony, Theuma stated that most of the inside information was shared by Fenech, who was kept informed by Keith Schembri, the chief of staff of Malta's then prime minister, Joseph Muscat. In testimony to police, presented to court, Fenech said Schembri passed on "a great deal of information" about the investigation to him, including that Fenech's phone was tapped and a warning to be careful. Questioned under oath, Schembri denied leaking. He says he never discussed the case with Fenech, or with anyone not officially briefed by police.
Separately, the public inquiry, which is examining the background to Caruana Galizia's death, has heard that law enforcement authorities were reluctant to investigate her accusations of corruption, in particular those she raised against Schembri and the former energy minister, Konrad Mizzi. As previously reported https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-malta-daphne-offshore-exclusive/exclusive-mystery-company-named-by-murdered-maltese-journalist-is-linked-to-power-station-developer-idUKKCN1NE196 by Reuters, Caruana Galizia accused Schembri and Mizzi of setting up offshore companies with the intention of accepting bribes. Caruana Galizia didn't provide proof, and both men deny the accusations.
Although no evidence has emerged that links Mizzi to the murder case, police have told the courts Schembri is a "person of interest." Schembri has been twice arrested and released without charge. The first arrest, in December 2019, was in connection with the murder; the most recent arrest, in September 2020, followed the freezing of his assets in a separate probe after a court found "reasonable suspicion" of money laundering.
Schembri denies any wrongdoing and any knowledge of the murder or its perpetrators.
Fenech denies the charges against him of complicity to murder. Instead, his lawyers have accused Schembri of instigating the murder. Under interrogation, according to police testimony, Fenech quoted Schembri as telling him: "Find someone to kill Daphne." Fenech, police testified, had told them the contract for the murder was 150,000 euros. Fenech didn't elaborate, police said.
Under the legal procedure, Fenech has not yet been required to file his defence or fully explain how he will contest the accusations. Wayne Jordash, a lawyer for Fenech, said the testimony of Theuma, the self-professed middleman in the plot, was "replete with unreliable claims and unexplained contradictions." Jordash said Fenech "urges the most scrupulous of investigations to identify the perpetrators of this terrible crime. He is confident that such an investigation will demonstrate his innocence."
The close friendship between Fenech and Schembri led, after Fenech's arrest, to the resignation of Prime Minister Muscat in December 2019. Muscat said he was stepping down to "shoulder political responsibility." Muscat, court evidence showed, was also an acquaintance of Fenech. They shared friendly WhatsApp messages, and Muscat invited Fenech to a birthday party in February 2019, even as Fenech was already under police suspicion of masterminding the killing.
Muscat, who was kept informed by police and the country's security service of the investigation's progress, said he had been told by the security service to act normally towards Fenech to avoid tipping him off.
In the hours after Caruana Galizia's killing, the most consequential decision made by Maltese authorities was to summon outside help, including from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the European Union's law enforcement agency, Europol. Using technology the Maltese lacked, foreign experts quickly concluded how the bomb was detonated and traced the mobile phones involved.
By December 2017, the alleged triggermen were arrested. Four months later one of them, Vince Muscat, hoping for an official pardon, told police and told Reuters https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-malta-daphne-confession-exclusive/exclusive-daphne-murder-accused-details-plot-to-kill-for-150000-euros-idUKKBN1Y21HL, via intermediaries, that Theuma, a taxi driver, had set up the hit. Separate investigations by local police and journalists showed that Theuma had written a will the day after the men were arrested, but police said in the months that followed they struggled to find firm evidence to arrest him.
Two senior political sources and two security officials involved in the case told Reuters that Europol grew frustrated at the failure by Malta to detain him and threatened to pull out of the investigation unless action was taken. A spokesman for the Hague-based Europol declined to comment, but said the organisation had "dedicated hundreds of man-days in operational support" to the case and was still actively involved.
Theuma was finally arrested in November 2019. He later testified he had been warned by Fenech to scrub his phone and devices, saying: "Be 100% sure everywhere is clean." The arrest took place two days earlier than Theuma expected and he was found holding a box of computer devices that contained conversations he said he had secretly recorded with Fenech.
Theuma asked for a pardon in return for the evidence, and this was rapidly given. On Nov. 19, Fenech was arrested on his yacht as he was sailing out of Malta. He has denied he was fleeing the country, but Maltese police official Inspector Kurt Zahra told a court in August there was a message on his phone asking relatives to take care of his children.
Under Maltese law, police must lay out all their evidence against a suspect before a magistrate, who then decides whether to sanction a trial. Anything prosecutors want to bring before an eventual jury must first be presented in the preliminary hearing.
This process has been completed for the suspected hitmen, and they could be put on trial in the first half of next year. It might take many months before Fenech is indicted.
Meanwhile, Malta Police maintain they are still working intensively on the case. Inspector Rodienne Haidon, a spokesperson, said "investigations into the murder of Ms Caruana Galizia are still very active," with weekly coordination meetings held with Europol. Under a new commissioner, Angelo Gafa, appointed this year, the number of teams dedicated to fighting money laundering had been tripled, she said.
KILLED FOR FUTURE REVELATIONS?
Among the mysteries that remain: the motive for killing Caruana Galizia.
Caruana Galizia only mentioned Fenech once in the blog where she published many of her investigative reports. But she took repeated aim against Schembri, the former chief of staff to the prime minister, including in her very last post before her death. She also regularly wrote about Electrogas Malta, the power station company, which had received a 360 million euro loan guarantee from Muscat's administration. Caruana Galizia believed that a state power supply contract with Electrogas Malta was rigged in the company's favour and the loan guarantee was "truly shocking." Electrogas says an internal review found no signs of corruption.
Inspector Zahra testified that Caruana Galizia had received in 2017 a leaked cache of over 600,000 emails related to Electrogas. This was a year after Caruana Galizia's revelations that Schembri and Mizzi owned companies in Panama. She reported that through these entities, Schembri and Mizzi expected to receive 2 million euros a year from a mysterious company called 17 Black. The two men denied wrongdoing and said they had never received any money. An investigation https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-malta-daphne-offshore-exclusive/exclusive-mystery-company-named-by-murdered-maltese-journalist-is-linked-to-power-station-developer-idUKKCN1NE196 by Reuters and the Times of Malta in 2018, a year after Caruana Galizia's death, revealed that Fenech owned 17 Black.
Although no proof has emerged about the motive for the assassination, police told the court that Caruana Galizia was likely killed not for what she had written so far, but for what she was still investigating. "That's why we believe that she was killed, because of something she was about to reveal," Zahra told the court.
(This article is published as part of The Daphne Project, an international reporting collaboration that includes Reuters.)
(reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome and Stephen Grey in Valletta and London; editing by Janet McBride)