Joseph Muscat denies any involvement in Daphne murder during court grilling

LONG READ | Former prime minister Joseph Muscat grilled at length on the witness stand about the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder, Keith Schembri, the 2014 murder plot, Chris Cardona and the pardon granted to Melvin Theuma

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat
Former prime minister Joseph Muscat

Joseph Muscat has denied any involvement in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder during a lengthy grilling on the witness stand during libel proceedings against lawyer Christian Grima.

Muscat was cross-examined on several contentious topics by lawyer Carl Grech on Monday, as the libel case continued before Magistrate Victor Axiak.

The former prime minister took Grima to court over a 2021 social media post in which the latter accused Muscat of “blowing up” journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The journalist was a prominent critic of the Muscat government and was murdered by a remotely-triggered bomb in October 2017.

Grima had shared a video featuring Muscat’s wife talking about Caruana Galizia’s murder, calling out her euphemistic phrasing when she referred to “what happened to” Caruana Galizia. “What happened to her? Your husband blew her up. That’s what happened to her,” Grima had written.

The post by lawyer Christian Grima accusing Muscat of blowing Daphne Caruana Galizia up
The post by lawyer Christian Grima accusing Muscat of blowing Daphne Caruana Galizia up

Muscat on murder involvement

Reading out the post, Grech asked Muscat how he interpreted it. “There is nothing to interpret, he’s implying that I murdered Daphne Caruana Galizia… There is no interpretation - the implication is that I was the author or person responsible for this murder… as some kind of mastermind or executor.”

Grech pointed out that Muscat had previously testified that nobody, “not even his harshest critics”, had suggested that he was somehow involved in the murder, and asked him about the events which led to him stepping down as prime minister. “It wasn’t just one or two people calling you an assassin. There were entire protests. Do you agree that in the days before your resignation, there were entire squares full of people calling you an assassin?”

“I wasn’t there and I don’t know what was being said in squares,” replied Muscat.  “But what I know is that there was nobody who said or wrote that I was involved in the murder, not even the public inquiry.”

The lawyer pressed on: “Don’t you listen to the public? You didn’t hear this in parliament.”

Muscat attacked the question: “It doesn’t appear that anyone said the words that Grima wrote, in parliament.”

“Who knows what people say?” Muscat went on. “On the record, some sort of assertion that I was involved in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, is absent.”

Asked whether he had medical problems which could cause him to faint, Muscat replied that he did but the only time that he had fainted in public was because he had taken the wrong dose of prescription medication. He said this had not happened on 14 October, as suggested, but earlier that month.

Muscat denied that the fainting incident had anything to do with the murder, when asked this by the court.

Keith Schembri’s alleged involvement 

Keith Schembri
Keith Schembri

Grech charged that Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri had publicly stated that he would inform him of every step he was taking. Muscat did not agree with the lawyer’s assertion that he had never denied Schembri’s claim, adding that he didn’t need to explain his chief of staff’s actions. “Schembri can defend himself,” Muscat said.

Reminding the witness that he was under oath and in court, Grech invited Muscat to state when he had denied what was being suggested, “that Keith Schembri was working behind your back.” 

Muscat replied that there were assertions on his part “where I say this clearly.”

“I made several declarations which might have been critical of Mr Schembri, both when I was prime minister, as well as afterwards.”

“That he hid things from you,” reminded the court. 

“Not ‘hid’, didn’t tell him about,” interjected Muscat’s lawyer Pawlu Lia. The court retorted that those were the words used in Grech’s question. 

Schembri resigned on the day he was arrested, Muscat replied, at which point Grech accused the witness of trying to dodge the question.

“I remember there was an interview in the Times where I could have said something to this effect, but not with those words,” Muscat finally conceded.

The former PM continued: “I came here under the impression that Dr Grima was saying that he had been speaking figuratively. But here it seems that he is trying to seek to make the impression that I was involved in the murder.”

Muscat said the lawyer’s questions suggested that Keith Schembri was the mastermind. “I am saying that if this is true I did not know about it, and also how could I stop something I wasn’t aware of? I still have faith in him [Schembri] as a person, to this very day,” insisted Muscat, caveating the remark by adding that he “cannot say that I knew everything he was doing.”

Grech reminded the witness that in his letter requesting a pardon, Melvin Theuma had clearly implied Schembri’s involvement.

“You don’t seem to understand how Presidential pardons work,” Muscat said. “The President grants it after the request is discussed by Cabinet, on the advice of the AG and the Commissioner of Police.”

“So why did you publicly take it all on yourself?,” asked Grech, without skipping a beat. “I don’t have anything else to say,” replied Muscat.

Lia asked the court whether these questions were relevant. “If the truth they are establishing is this, then yes, they are relevant,” replied the magistrate. 

Grech explained to the court that he was asking why, in view of Muscat’s public declaration about Schembri’s trustworthiness, he had continued to keep him close.

Grech pressed on, insisting that as the prime minister, Muscat had an obligation to know what his chief of staff was doing. “What measures did you take to keep abreast of what Keith Schembri was doing?”

“I am saying that no foul play was found. In human relationships, you operate on trust. I had full trust in Schembri and the rest of my Cabinet. I didn't check on them three times a day.”

Melvin Theuma’s pardon and security service

Melvin Theuma
Melvin Theuma

Muscat explained that during briefings that he had with the Attorney General and the investigating inspectors, the police had told him that they believed that Melvin Theuma should be granted a pardon.

He denied sharing this information with Schembri. Neither did Schembri have access to this information, Muscat said.

Grech pointed out that he had previously testified to having invited Schembri to attend some of those briefings, all of which he said happened before the pardon was issued. “Some,” repeated Muscat.

“Names aren’t mentioned in the briefings. They are briefings which indicate where the exercise is heading. Whether there are operations which require cooperation between several entities. My responsibility was to ensure that they met around the same table,” Muscat said, telling the court that he was not sure if he could say any more about this.

Grech asked whether it had been during these briefings that he had given permission to tap Fenech’s and Theuma’s phones. Muscat questioned whether he had authorisation to disclose such matters, to which the court said that he did.

The lawyer asked whether Schembri had means to exert pressure on the security services. 

“No. I don’t think it ever happened, either,” Muscat replied, telling the court that the security services were “allowed to operate serenely and without interference.”

Muscat asserted that he had not been informed that Fenech and Theuma’s phones were being tapped, saying that there was an established procedure for the issuing of such warrants and that he did not know whether Schembri had been aware of what was happening in those briefings. 

“I had no doubt about Mr Schembri so I had no reason to take measures to ensure that he wasn’t aware,” Muscat said.

“And Kenneth Camilleri?” Grech asked.

“Kenneth Camilleri was one of six police officers who were rostered on my security detail,” said Muscat, testifying that Camilleri had “no inside information.”

Muscat was confronted with a claim he had made in other court proceedings, that he had been instructed to keep relations with Yorgen Fenech normal. “Did you tell Keith Schembri about this instruction?”

Muscat said he hadn’t.

“Was there any reason why this communication intensified around the time of Schembri’s arrest?” suggested Grech.

“No,” Muscat replied again.

Lia interjected, saying that he “is not sure this is even the case.”

“So how did he speak to the Degiorgios and assure them that they had nothing to worry about?” asked Grech, informing the court that the defence would be calling the mentioned three people to testify at a later stage.

“How am I supposed to know what is being said to others?” protested Muscat. “In my mind the people around the table were the only people with access to this information,” he insisted. The court disallowed a follow-up question about the identities of the people around the table.

2014 plot mentioning Chris Cardona

Chris Cardona
Chris Cardona

Grech’s questions moved on to a letter specifying a previous plot to kill Caruana Galizia in 2014. “Did Keith Schembri ever inform you about the existence of this plot?”

“No. I don’t think Schembri was even involved,” Muscat replied.

“Keith Schembri wrote the letter,” pointed out the lawyer.

Muscat said that he had not heard any rumours about the murder before it happened or shortly after it happened.

“So, when did you hear about it?” Grech asked. “Afterwards, some rumours started circulating,” answered the witness.

“But Keith Schembri clearly knew about this because he mentioned it in the letter he sent to Yorgen Fenech,” the lawyer insisted.

Muscat said he only knew about it from news reports.

Asked whether any other ministers were involved in that plot, Muscat again pointed to information already in the public domain. “It’s in the public domain, Chris Cardona was mentioned.” Cardona had been the deputy leader of the Labour Party at the time.

Grima’s lawyer asked Muscat whether he knew “that Cardona was one of the first people to be called to appear before the inquiring magistrate, Consuelo Scerri Herrera.”

“I am not aware of this and I would like to know where this information is coming from.”

The court was told that Peter Caruana Galizia had mentioned this in proceedings before Judge Silvio Meli, in which he had been requesting the removal of Assistant Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta from the murder investigation.

“Consuelo Scerri Herrera only spent a few hours in charge of this inquiry,” replied Muscat.

“Exactly, and one of the persons she spoke to was precisely Chris Cardona,” the lawyer shot back. “I am not aware of this.” Muscat replied curtly.

The Melvin Theuma recordings

Asked whether he had been informed about Melvin Theuma’s cache of recorded conversations during the investigation, Muscat said he had been informed that a person being investigated had indicated that they had some form of recordings. He denied having heard them or being informed of their contents.

Muscat added that he hadn’t been aware that Schembri's name was mentioned in the recordings, and had only discovered this when the information emerged in public. “From the briefing I received, there was doubt as to whether these recordings even existed.”

“So, you granted a pardon without knowing they existed?” Grech hit back.

“I followed the procedure of acting on the written recommendations of the Attorney General and Commissioner of Police. Their argument, I remember clearly, was that they needed both the recordings and the witness testimony to have a case [that would stand up in court].”

Theuma’s letter mentioning Schembri and Fenech

The defence lawyer’s questions returned to the letter found in Theuma’s possession. Muscat said he was “still trying to remember which letter this is.”

Grech exhibited the letter, as had been published by the Times of Malta.

Memory jogged, Muscat said that although he had never seen it before, he understood it to be something which the police had found in a box together with Theuma’s recordings. “I believe there were some public declarations by Theuma about why he mentioned names and who.”

Muscat said the police hadn’t told him what had been found in Theuma’s possession. “It was clear that some kind of paper was found. The advice about the pardon came from the Commissioner of Police and the AG. I don’t know if they were aware of the content of the recordings when they advised me about it. I imagine they also knew about the letter… I don’t recall that this information was brought to my attention. It could also be that the information it contained was discounted.”

They had not mentioned Schembri to him when they informed him of the note, Muscat said, insisting that Schembri was first mentioned to him when Yorgen Fenech had suggested he might be involved.

FBI involvement

Asked about how the FBI had come to be involved in the murder investigation, Muscat said that “it was a decision taken on a political level”. “I took it myself,” he insisted.

When the lawyer asked whether he was implying that Superintendent George Cremona did nothing, Muscat said that Cremona had only “triggered a mechanism.”

“But I had already spoken to the US Ambassador to ask the American authorities for assistance,” Muscat said.

Silvio Valletta 

Former deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta (right)
Former deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta (right)

Muscat said that former assistant commissioner Silvio Valletta had been involved in the murder investigation as soon as it started.

Inspector (now Superintendent) Keith Arnaud was involved at the same time on a different level, explained the witness.

Grech asked about Valletta’s previous relationship with the plaintiff. 

Muscat’s lawyer interjected, his voice full of frustration. “This procedure is an injustice to the plaintiff!” he said. Justice will be served when the case is decided, replied the magistrate calmly.

There was no indication of Fenech’s involvement at that stage, Muscat said. “I knew they were friends, that they knew each other. I didn’t know the type of relationship.”

When Fenech’s name had started being mentioned in the proceedings, Valletta had already been removed from the investigation due to his marital ties to a cabinet minister, he added.

Muscat said that he was not informed of any meeting between Valletta and Fenech at Fenech’s residence.

Political crisis led to Schembri’s resignation

Keith Schembri’s resignation was a political move, Muscat told the court. “Because the situation had escalated to such an extent that, politically, he said he would call it a day.” 

“I don’t think that he was aware of his impending arrest. It was a political crisis, Minister [Konrad] Mizzi had resigned… He said he didn’t want the government to be harmed.”

Lia asked the court to order the inversion of the burden of proof, pointing out that it implied that Grima was accepting that the claims he made were injurious and that he had evidence to back them up.

The court upheld the request in view of the defence being raised. 

The case will continue in May.

Lawyer Pawlu Lia is representing Muscat in the proceedings. Lawyer Carl Grech is appearing for Grima.