Top Maltese politicians step down as journalist murder probe deepens

Two high-ranking politicians in Malta’s government resigned on Tuesday, with a third “suspending himself,” as a murder probe accelerated into the killing of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia two years ago.

The resignations of Keith Schembri, the chief of staff to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi mark the biggest political fallout to date since Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in 2017.

Sources told AFP that Schembri had been called in for questioning by police after his name was mentioned by the main suspect in the case, business mogul Yorgen Fenech.

Fenech, who was arrested on his yacht last week, has requested immunity to reveal what he knows about the case. He was released on bail on Tuesday, according to police sources.

Muscat refused to say what prompted Schembri’s decision, telling reporters it was premature to speculate on “whether he is being questioned or what he is being questioned about”.

Hours later, Mizzi told journalists it was his “duty” to step down “so that the government of Joseph Muscat would be able to complete its full term.”

In another blow to the government on Tuesday, Economy Minister Chris Cardona’s ministry said in a statement that he was “suspending himself with immediate effect from his position as minister pending the investigations and proceedings going on right now”.

No further details were provided.

Family calls for PM’s resignation

Caruana Galizia, a popular journalist and blogger described as a “one-woman WikiLeaks”, became known for exposing cronyism and sleaze within the country’s political and business elite.

She alleged that Schembri and Mizzi had been involved in corruption, claims both men have denied. Separately, Caruana Galizia had also reported that Cardona had visited a German brothel while on official government business, according to Maltese media.

Caruana Galizia’s murder sparked outrage and protests in the Mediterranean island, with her family accusing Muscat of protecting those involved in her death.

On Tuesday, they called for Muscat’s resignation and the prosecution of Schembri and Mizzi.

Failure to bring them to justice “will have fatal consequences for Malta’s democracy,” the family said in a statement.

Caruana Galizia’s son Matthew tweeted that Muscat “simply cannot be trusted to not obstruct justice”.

The prime minister, however, rejected this.

“I never turned a blind eye to impropriety,” Muscat said.

“What is happening with the recent developments shows that whatever people might say or think, the institutions are working,” he added.

“I would definitely resign if there were any association between myself and the murder.”

Payments to politicians?

Schembri has served as Muscat’s chief of staff since 2013.

Much of Caruana Galizia’s work related to what the 2016 Panama Papers data leak revealed about high-level corruption in Malta, including connections between politicians and a Dubai company called 17 Black.

Leaked emails related to the Panama Papers appeared to show that companies owned by Schembri and Mizzi stood to receive payments from 17 Black, later found to be owned by tycoon Fenech.

The decision to give immunity to Fenech, whose business interests span the energy to tourism sectors, is still pending.

His detention followed that of a middleman in the murder, Melvin Theuma, who on Tuesday was given immunity to expose those involved.

Theuma is now expected to go before a judge to repeat what he has already told police.

Although three men face trial for carrying out the murder, the mastermind has never been identified.

(AFP)