There is more than ‘closure’ at stake here

Besides: I would also like to think that, if Daphne’s murder served also to trigger a thorough clean-up of our country’s very sick, very unhealthy set-up… at least, she would not have died in vain

Damn. This is the second time in two weeks I have been forced to scrap an entire article owing to changing circumstances on the ground. Until a few minutes ago, I was putting the final touches onto one about the possible ramifications of Joseph Muscat’s refusal to step down as prime minister…

And what do you know? All media outlets now report that Joseph Muscat will be stepping down after all; and he might make the announcement within minutes.

All those hours of hard work, drown the drain…

But then again, these things have a habit of balancing themselves out. Last week, I wrote another unpublished article, in which I speculated what might happen (in the then-unlikely event that) if Muscat did, in fact, resign.

So the rest will be an updated version of that earlier article. With a few small provisos, however.

For starters, I will not go onto the implications of Muscat’s imminent resignation (real or imaginary) for the murder investigation itself; because we still don’t know for sure if he will or won’t. Suffice it to say, however, that this news comes: a) only hours after an earlier (3.30am) statement, following a Cabinet meeting, to the effect that he would not be resigning at all, and; b) before news reports that Yorgen Fenech had named Muscat as a potential suspect in his submissions to police interrogation.

All this has to be treated with extreme caution. At this stage, Yorgen Fenech is himself the prime suspect. As such, he has an immediate interest in widening the investigation net: it would lessen his own culpability for the murder, and therefore reduce his sentence.

The bottom line is that Yorgen Fenech might be telling the truth; but he might also be lying. We just don’t have enough information, as yet, to decide either way.

So instead of predicting outcomes, I will limit myself to contemplating the challenges faced by the new leadership that will presumably be replacing Joseph Muscat in the coming weeks. For the changes taking place behind the throne come at a critical time, both for the Labour Party and the country as a whole.  

Simply put, the new leadership team will have to ensure that justice is done (and is seen to be done) in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder inquiry; it will have to preside over a (probably very bumpy) transition period towards the re-acquisition of ‘normality’; it will have to shore up the instability currently reigning over government; and above all, it will be expected to recalibrate the country’s entire trajectory, with a view to stamping out, as far as possible, the corruption culture that has lain at the core of this ghastly murder from the outset.

Whether it undertakes any of those endeavours naturally depends on the nature and character of the new leader; and that’s just another of the things we can’t reliably predict (which, of course, also means that everyone and his dog is currently predicting Chris Fearne. We shall see…)

But even the smallest of those targets would make the ordinary daily business of any Maltese government look like a walk in the park. Taken together, they represent arguably the single greatest national challenge since Independence (with the possible exception of EU membership).

So let’s tackle them one at a time. The first priority will be to avoid, at all costs, the perception that the incoming government is in any way ‘protecting’ the outgoing one. On one hand, this would imply involving itself as little as possible in ongoing investigations – which, for reasons already explained, now have to take Yorgen Fenech’s latest claims into account – but also, opening up all previously internal OPM dealings to scrutiny by the investigators.

On that score, we should really be moving towards a state of total transparency…  and not just for the sake of final closure in the Daphne murder case. There are still too many unanswered questions in the equation. Now, for instance, would be a good time to finally publish that full Egrant magisterial inquiry report.

But that inquiry was limited merely to establish whether there was any evidence linking Egrant specifically to Joseph Muscat… and not to identify the ultimate beneficiary owner, regardless who it might be.

So, now would perhaps be a better time to launch an overdue investigation with the sole, specific target of unmasking the owner of that company once and for all. (The same, naturally, goes for Macbridge, and any other remaining ‘missing links’ in the case).

Another, more controversial measure would have to be revisiting Muscat’s final (inauspicious) decision as prime minister, which was to refuse Yorgen Fenech a Presidential pardon.

Personally, I am rather hoping that the truth would not need another pardon to be forthcoming. In an ideal world, investigators should be able to pinpoint suspects without having to resort to such extreme measures as ‘granting immunity from prosecution’. And there are other tools – including plea-bargaining – to consider instead.

But given what we know about Yorgen Fenech’s version of events (true or false, not for us to say at this stage), the country needs full assurance that all leads are being thoroughly followed, regardless where they seem to point.

Having said this, it remains just as undesirable for a newly inaugurated prime minister to simply take the same controversial decision him-or-herself. I don’t know who suggested the idea originally, but I like the concept of a special ad hoc board, composed of acting and retired judges, to examine the specifics of the case, and then make a recommendation to the prime minister accordingly.

It would introduce a much-needed buffer zone between the seat of political power, and the criminal investigation: something that has unfortunately been missing from day one.

Either way, it is imperative that the full truth comes out, and that the new government is seen to be doing everything in its power to ensure that happens: i.e., to ‘leave no stone unturned’, as its predecessor had promised to do.

This brings us to the consideration of restoring stability, and at least the semblance of normality. Much would naturally have to depend on how the protestors demanding Muscat’s resignation will react, now that he looks likely to resign.

I won’t speculate, because this is another of the things that are likely to change again by the time I finish this article. So far, I’ve already seen a few reactions along the lines that… ‘resignations are not enough, criminal prosecutions are now what we’re after’, etc.

If that is indeed the general mood among protestors, we may be in for a far bumpier ride than is strictly necessary. Criminal prosecutions have to come about as a result of criminal investigations, not on the basis of popular demand.

But from that same perspective: more protests would certainly be warranted, if it can be determined that investigators are indeed excluding certain trails. Ideally, then, the police should conduct a media briefing session – or ‘press conference’, call it what you will – to explain precisely why it was not necessary to issue a pardon for Yorgen Fenech; and, by the same token, why the Prime Minister was not to be considered a ‘special interest person’ in this case… as Keith Schembri was, when faced with the same allegation.

The same goes for Keith Schembri, incidentally. So far, we have only been told that he’s no longer an official suspect. But we haven’t been told exactly why.

I imagine much of this will get cleared up when Melvyn Theuma finally delivers his all-important testimony in court; but that was supposed to happen this morning, and so far it hasn’t.

So, even in the interest of just avoiding further unnecessary confrontations outside Parliament, now would be the perfect time for the investigators to provide answers to all those questions.

Either way, however, some form of compromise may be required, to at least allow the country a little much-needed breathing space. Just like the protest movement now has an opportunity to show a little restraint… Muscat’s replacement can also greatly facilitate matters by just not standing in the way of all the further criminal investigations that must now take place.

The new Labour leadership will also have its hands full trying to make good for the reputational damage already inflicted on the country as a whole. In line with the judicial suggestion I mentioned earlier, one thing the new government may wish to consider is to set up a special taskforce – extending to foreign members, if necessary – to look into every major government contract, and every major decision by every regulatory authority, for the past few years at least.

I shall have to admit I am unaware of the precise legal infrastructure that would govern the setting up of any such entity: but I presume it would have to consist of people known to be of integrity, with as little in the way of political baggage as possible, ideally chosen after consultation with all leading stakeholders.

In brief, something along the lines of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development, but also comprising the judiciary, the police, the media and other interested parties.

Whether this is done by the same entity or another, ideally the exercise should also come in tandem with a revision of the entire legislative infrastructure governing public contracts and the like. Over and above a long-overdue review of the Constitution, which, in any case, I already wrote about last week.

Much as ‘Justice for Daphne’ should remain the ongoing battle-cry, we all know there is more at stake than closure in one particular case.

Besides: I would also like to think that, if Daphne’s murder served also to trigger a thorough clean-up of our country’s very sick, very unhealthy set-up… at least, she would not have died in vain.

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