This week a key suspect in my mother’s murder was arrested. The conspiracy to protect her killers is finally beginning to crumble
It was Wednesday morning, and I had been in Malta for eight hours when the messages came in.
The first read: “17 Black boat being raided.” The second: “Yorgen Fenech under arrest.”
In her last major story, my mother Daphne uncovered a network of shell companies that were being used in a multi-million dollar bribery scheme. Two of them are Panamanian, owned by men working in the Maltese government. Another, called 17 Black, is registered in Dubai.
She never got to discover the owner of the Dubai company. My mother, Malta’s most prominent investigative journalist, was killed by a car bomb outside our family home two years ago.
A year after her death, The Daphne Project, an international group of journalists continuing her investigative work, including Reuters, the Guardian, New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung and others, found out that 17 Black is owned by Yorgen Fenech, an investor in a major new Maltese power station.
Suddenly, the picture became clearer.
My mother had already uncovered the identities of the other two men. The two Panamanian companies were owned by the Maltese prime minister’s chief-of-staff Keith Schembri, and the then energy minister Konrad Mizzi, my mother had discovered. Days after they assumed office in 2013, they took ownership of the companies, and just weeks later they rigged the privatisation of Malta’s energy sector.
They locked the country into an 18-year agreement to buy gas at twice the market rate from Azerbaijan, planning to share kickbacks of €5,000 a day from 17 Black, later revealed to be owned by Fenech, into their Panama companies. It was like a huge piece of the puzzle had settled into place.
On Wednesday, Jacob Borg, a reporter at The Times of Malta, was staking out Fenech’s large, sleek yacht at the private marina built by his family’s conglomerate when, at around 5.30am, Borg heard the yacht’s engine start and he called for help.
Fenech was trying to make a run for it. He made it about a mile north before he was intercepted by the Armed Forces just 15 minutes later.
Jogging along the coast farther east, my father’s colleague heard sirens out at sea and saw flashlights breaking though the dawn sky. “I thought it was a fisherman, caught with tuna,” he said at their office in Valletta later that day.
It just so happened that the arrest came on the same day of an important court hearing. Within an hour, my father and I were putting on our jackets, ties and heading to one of the pre-trial hearings in my mother’s assassination case, which began in July, at the courthouse on Valletta’s main street. It sits opposite the memorial to my mother – made up of flowers and hand-written notes – that the government clears away every single day.
Inside, we walked past heavily-armed police officers and into the courtroom where the murder trial will play out months from now. My grandparents were, as always, sitting in the front row. They were just four metres away from the men charged with placing and detonating the bomb under my mother’s car – the men commissioned to organise and implement her death. There they sat, Vincent Muscat and the two Degiorgio brothers, George and Alfred – all Maltese, in their fifties, looking haggard.
An expensive defence lawyer argued that reams of the prosecution’s evidence against his clients – the Degiorgio brothers – is invalid. He tried to argue that the message, sent from one of their phones to arm the bomb, is the same as a message you might send to switch on a light.
I looked at one of the men, Vincent Muscat, and wondered what he was thinking. He saw me and looked at the floor. Unlike his accomplices, Muscat wants out. In court, he refused to share the same bench as the Degiorgios. He sat alone, behind them and his lawyer, who was playing with a highlighter pen.
It was Muscat who, over a year ago, having seen the evidence amass against him, began talking to the police. I’ll give you, he told investigators, a name. The news that Muscat was talking came out – and set in motion a chain of events that led to Fenech’s arrest on Wednesday.
Melvin Theuma, a loan shark and operator of an illegal gambling ring, heard that Muscat was talking. He is reported to have prepared a new will the moment Muscat was arrested. On Thursday last week, he was detained on unrelated money laundering offences, but he knew immediately why they came for him. Muscat had ratted him out, and his only option was to do the same. So he named Fenech.
Fenech, meanwhile, transferred the directorship of his family conglomerate to his heavily-tattooed boxer brother two days before Theuma’s arrest. Fenech had been under suspicion of ordering my mother’s assassination ever since his ownership of 17 Black was revealed two years ago. There was no longer any point in denying it.
The scheme Fenech set up with Schembri, Mizzi and a third as yet unexplained company, Macbridge, where they planned to share kickbacks from a corrupt gas supply agreement with Azerbaijan, was to be my mother’s next big story. It was the one she never finished.
Weeks before she was killed, she began receiving thousands of internal documents from Fenech’s energy company, Electrogas. The leak continued to flow for weeks after my mother was killed. I will never forget my brother Matthew reading out emails in which Electrogas employees discussed the news of my mother’s assassination. At a remote country house in south-east England, a few days after her assassination, we handed over the material to the journalists who would form the Daphne Project.
After two years of putting out the lie that my mother’s assassination was unrelated to her journalism, of spreading a conspiracy theory that my brother, Matthew, had a hand in the plot, prime minister Joseph Muscat couldn’t pretend any longer. This day, when Yorgen Fenech was arrested, his tactic changed.
The morning of Fenech’s detention, the prime minister, eyes drowsy and speech slurred, told journalists the arrest showed he could take decisive action. But, he maintained, “so far”, that there are no links between politicians and the assassination.
There was a strangeness about the day that followed. Malta was alight: it couldn’t believe what had just happened. Fenech, the most powerful money man in the country, had been caught trying to flee. But the buses kept running, the sun was shining, and the cafés were full.
Slowly at first, a crowd assembled outside the prime minister’s office at the entrance to Valletta. A man began to speak, saying the prime minister is politically responsible for my mother’s assassination. He has blood on his hands, blood on his hands, he shouted.
With the crowd, my father and I walked down the main street to the memorial. But people were in no mood for it. A young woman called: “To parliament. To parliament now!” And so we turned back, and assembled at the parliament building. We waited. Not patiently, but shouting, louder: assassini, korrotti, mafia, mafia.
Ministers’ chauffer-driven cars were lined up outside, ready to take the politicians home after the evening’s sitting. Some escaped ahead of us. Some took the back exit. Others marched out of the front in huddles of security personnel and police officers. The crowd chanted louder: ASSASSINI, MAFIA, MAFIA.
We edged closer until we passed the small barriers put up in front of the parliament building, right in time for the justice minister’s exit. A symbol of injustice, of craven ineptitude, he was hurried into his car to cries of ġustizzja [justice], ġustizzja, mafia.
Justice minister Owen Bonnici’s portfolio includes culture and so it is under his orders that the memorial is cleared each day. The crowd shouted: why don’t you clean the memorial now, mafia? People circled around his car, throwing coins at it, kicking and banging at it. A group sat down in front of the car, blocking him from leaving.
I have never seen this kind of public anger in Malta.
After 30 minutes, the group finally moved aside, but not before the minister’s driver, eager to get away, ran over a police woman’s leg. She let out a piercing scream, before she was pulled away by another officer. The car sped off.
How much longer can they keep running? The government’s PR strategy was refined by the end of the day to focus purely on Fenech. Never mind his bribery scheme involves a cabinet minister and the prime minister’s chief of staff.
The crowd, grudgingly, dispersed and my father and I returned home to Bidnija, where we sat down to watch the day’s news. I saw more clearly, outside the crowd, how unhinged the government cronies looked.
The prime minister is a ghost in a shell of man; his chief-of-staff, so centrally implicated in my mother’s death, is greying and scuttles from blacked-out SUV to government office to blacked-out SUV. And Mizzi, what to say about Mizzi. He is still denying any connection to 17 Black.
The next day, my father woke me up at 7am with coffee and Maltese toast with butter and honey. I felt as though I had slept for five minutes.
Now, we plan to wait, day and night, in Valletta – to be there in court as soon as Fenech is brought in, handcuffed and desperate, miles away from his superyachts, private jets and political protectors.
Before leaving Bidnija for my father’s office, I sit with my coffee at my mother’s old desk, and at last I understand. The race may not be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet bread to the wise, and these, she says, are the reasons to fight.