Silence will not make the issue go away

Muscat said nothing about the matter until three years after both Pilatus Bank and Sadr himself came to public attention. Why did the news have to be revealed by others? Why the need for secrecy?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

News that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, together with his chief of staff Keith Schembri, was among a number of Maltese guests at Ali Sadr Hasheminejad’s 2015 wedding in Venice, has understandably raised a few eyebrows.

Hasheminejad was arrested last week by US authorities at Dulles airport, Virginia, US, on charges of having breached US sanctions against Iran. He faces a possible 125-year sentence, for offences that include money laundering.

The 2015 wedding naturally pre-dates news of his arrest, and the benefit of the doubt compels us to accept that Muscat may have known nothing about the suspicious activities for which Hasheminejad  was – even at the time – being investigated by the American authorities.

But last week’s arrest is incidental to a far wider net of suspicions and allegations – some of which concerning Muscat’s own connections with Pilatus Bank – surrounding the financial institution set up by Hasheminejad in Malta, and which is separately being investigated over money laundering allegations.

Unlike the US sanctions charges for which Hasheminejad was arrested, these suspicions and allegations have been in the public domain for almost a year. The claim that Muscat’s wife was the ultimate beneficiary of Egrant, which allegedly holds an account at Pilatus – into which, allegedly, over one million euro were deposited – was first made in April 2016. Yet it is only now, after Hasheminejad’s arrest forced the issue back into the spotlight, that Muscat disclosed his presence, along with Schembri, at Sadr’s wedding three years ago.

Why only now? Would Muscat have admitted it at all, if the arrest had not taken place?

Muscat has since issued a statement to justify his attendance, suggesting that it is normal for the prime minister to attend such events. And it is true that Maltese prime ministers, and many other career politicians, do attend weddings and similar events as a matter of course.

It is also understandable that Muscat – especially when in ‘salesman mode’, so to speak – would probably feel pushed to attend an event hosted by a large (actual or potential) investor. This happens across the entire political spectrum, so it is no surprise that a prime minister who actively tries to portray a ‘business-friendly’ persona would accept the invititation.

But the question concerns the apparent secrecy that was maintained over this issue until now. In view of the much-publicised controversies surrounding Pilatus Bank – which, it must be noted, erupted after the wedding itself – surely it would have been more prudent of the Prime Minister to immediately come clean about having attended Sadr’s wedding abroad, the moment his name was embroiled in the Egrant saga... if nothing else, to allay the inevitable suspicions that would arise.

Instead, Muscat said nothing about the matter until three years after both Pilatus Bank and Sadr himself came to public attention. Why did the news have to be revealed by others? Why the need for secrecy?

Meanwhile, the silence continues. Beyond acknowledging that he had, in fact, attended the wedding, Muscat has not sought to explain or justify his connection to Hasheminejad himself. It is this aspect of the revelation, not the wedding itself, that ultimately matters. The wedding detail only adds to the narrative of those accusing Muscat of unwholesome relations with a financial institution which is suspected of involvement in illegal activities. A rapport, of some kind, clearly exists; the public has a right to know the precise extent of the rapport.

Perhaps Muscat is convinced that the people - who elected him by such large a majority, despite accusations of corruption and malfeasance - do not care about this, either. If so, he may even have a point: like the Egrant scandal before it – or, for that matter, the Panama Papers issue – this case is too complex and ‘other-worldly’ to be of too much concern to the ordinary voter. But this does not absolve the Prime Minister of his responsibility towards the democratic process. Muscat himself may feel no need to explain to voters and the public why he attended the wedding of a bank owner at the centre of so many accusations, and who now faces 125 years in jail. But the need exists all the same.

Meanwhile it would help if his critics stuck to the issue at hand. Former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil has tabled a parliamentary question, asking Muscat to explain what gift he gave Sadr for his wedding, and how much he paid for it. No doubt that would make an interesting footnote in proceedings; but it is hardly the crux of the matter.

One might also enquire why, as usual, it is Busuttil (and only Busuttil) keeping the governance flag flying for the PN... and not Adrian Delia, who seems to be absent on this issue. Why is the Opposition leader not taking the lead? Why is the PN media focusing on other, less relevant issues instead?

Either way, Prime Minister Muscat should now give a full and detailed account of all his dealings with Sadr: all meetings - scheduled or otherwise - and all discussions that were ever held between them. Keeping silent about this issue will not make it go away.