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Letter from Malta

Paul Caruana Galizia: Hearing from a deposed prime minster

Friday 11 December 2020

Joseph Muscat, former leader of Malta, has been testifying at the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination

When the former Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat arrived at the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination last Friday morning, there was no space in the packed courtroom for his seven or so bodyguards.

They took turns squashing their big faces against the courtroom doors’ square windows, watching Muscat’s lawyers hurry him inside and towards the witness stand in front of the inquiry’s three judges.

“He’s uncomfortable,” I heard one of his lawyers whisper to the other. “He’s uncomfortable.”

He looked it. The witness stand was a new kind of podium for Muscat, a small man with short little legs who, not long ago, had lobbied hard to replace Donald Tusk as the president of the European Council. He had come, according to his spin doctor, “very close”.

The spin doctor made it into the courtroom, and was sitting in a corner, getting ready to post live updates to Muscat’s Facebook page. They began.

Muscat’s hands trembled as he opened the ring-binder containing the long, catty statement he brought with him. The spin doctor got ahead of himself and uploaded the whole statement to Facebook as Muscat was just starting up.

“Before answering to the board’s questions,” he read aloud and very sternly, “I would like to put forward a number of points which are pertinent to the creation and existence of this inquiry.”

The points were: the judges have failed “miserably” because they are controlled by Caruana Galizia’s family and the opposition party; he did nothing wrong at any point in his career; and “history” – and here he quoted Napoleon that “history is an agreed upon set of lies” – not the board will judge him. 

Muscat ended by telling the judges, who are working to uncover whether the state knew or ought to have known about risks to Caruana Galizia’s life, what questions he would answer.

He didn’t like the first one, about his former adviser singling out Caruana Galizia, my mother, for harassment in the run-up to her assassination.

“The question is not relevant,” Muscat announced, “but I will reply.”

The reply was that Caruana Galizia wrote about him and his government, so his advisor was entitled to hit her back and, given she was such an influential journalist, he was entitled to hit her back hard.

The judges, expressionless, moved onto Caruana Galizia’s biggest story. 

It was about the Panama financial structures that Muscat’s former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and senior cabinet minister, Konrad Mizzi, took possession of right after they were elected in 2013.

“When I asked Keith Schembri about the structures, he said that Bank of Valletta wouldn’t be offering the services he required abroad,” Muscat said. “Konrad Mizzi had said he needed it for his family. I believed them.” 

The judges let him fill the silence, as his bodyguards continued squashing their faces against the door’s windows and his lawyers kept yapping at the judges.

“The benefit of hindsight is a superpower that doesn’t exist,” Muscat, now in statesman mode, continued.

But why not take action against them when it became obvious they were lying?

“Stories develop piece by piece,” Muscat explained patiently, “and you don’t know where it is going to end up.”

Here’s where this one ended up: after Caruana Galizia broke the story in February 2016, she named another company called 17 Black a year later, but struggled to uncover its owner before she was assassinated in October 2017.

At the start of 2018, the journalists who picked up on her work found that 17 Black was due to pay Mizzi and Schembri’s companies millions of euros. By the end of 2018, the journalists found that Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese oligarch who sold an overpriced power station called Electrogas to Muscat’s government, was 17 Black’s owner.

A year later, Fenech was charged with masterminding Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Within the same week, Schembri was arrested on suspicion of forming part of the conspiracy to assassinate Caruana Galizia, Mizzi resigned, and then Muscat announced his resignation.

Another year later, at this public inquiry hearing, Muscat revealed under questioning that he knew all along, despite denying publicly all along, that 17 Black was owned by Fenech. In due course, the judges will decide whether the state knew or ought to have known of the conspiracy.

In the meantime they told Muscat that had he held Schembri and Mizzi accountable from the start, Malta would have taken a very different path, one that would have led away from murder.