Caruana Galizia murder: Doubts over IT expert’s competence to identify threats on victim’s phone

The compilation of evidence against George and Alfred Degiorgio and Vince Muscat continued today, with a debate ensuing on whether IT expert Martin Bajada had the authority to identify threatening messages on the murdered journalist’s phone

Suspects Vince Muscat, Alfred and George Degiorgio (centre) at the site of the scene from where the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia is believed to have been witnessed by one of the hitmen.
Suspects Vince Muscat, Alfred and George Degiorgio (centre) at the site of the scene from where the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia is believed to have been witnessed by one of the hitmen.

The compilation of evidence against the three men accused of murdering journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 continued on Thursday, with IT expert Martin Bajada taking the witness stand.

In the last sittings, lawyers for the accused had insisted with the court that Bajada not be allowed to testify, and had presented a constitutional case asking the court to stop him from doing so since he had a criminal conviction dating back to 1993. This was turned down by the court.

Today’s sitting saw a somewhat heated debate between lawyers on whether Bajada - who had analysed data cloned off Caruana Galizia’s cellular phone - was able to say if there were any threatening message found on the journalist’s mobile.

Alfred Degiorgio’s lawyer William Cuschieri asked Bajada about any sources which were on the victim’s phone, with lead inspector Keith Arnaud objecting to the question, and pointing out that there was a decree by Magistrate Anthony Vella in place protecting the late journalist’s sources.

Cuschieri insisted that it was threats he was interested in, not journalistic sources, however, Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit said that Bajada had never been authorised to analyse threats.

Bajada suggested to the court that he could be given a list of keyword which would constitute threats, and that he could then search the data for this, but parte civile lawyer for the victim’s family Therese Commodini Cachia said such a system would still have its shortcomings since it still wouldn’t protect the journalist’s wider sources.

Subsequently the magistrate clearly stated that it was not within Bajada’s remit to determine what or what wasn’t a threat, and Cuschieri said he would be asking for the cloned phone data to be removed from the case’s records.

Earlier in the sitting, Bajada explained how, from analysing all the calls made on the day of the car bomb in the area where the explosion took place, he had identified two calls of interest.

The calls involved two devices, one which was identified from its IMEI number as a Nokia mobile phone, and the other which had “alarmed” him, because it was not a phone, but a GPS receiver.

He said that the mobile in question had sent the message “#rel1=on”, and that the purpose of that text was to give power to a component. After the explosion on October 16, the two device were never used again, he highlighted.

Bajada also explained how the two devices’ activity on the day of the murder fit exactly into the timeline of how the car bomb explosion unfolded, as established by witnesses at the scene, calls to the 112 emergency number and civil protection department personnel.

The IT expert clarified that he could only determine that the two devices in question had communicated. “I can never say who was behind every device or who made what call,” he said.

At the sitting drew to a close, all the defence lawyers said they were reserving their right to raise preliminary pleas over the admissibility of evidence, in particular that which required particular expertise to compile, and on whether any local or European laws had been breached.

The case was adjourned to April 12.

The key courtroom players:

William Cuschieri and Martha Muscat are appearing for Alfred Degiorgio, known as il-Fulu, 53.

Martin Fenech is appearing for Vince Muscat, known as il-Koħħu, 55.

Josette Sultana is appearing for George Degiorgio, known as iċ-Ċiniz, 55.

Philip Galea Farrugia from the Attorney General's Office and Inspectors Keith Arnaud and Kurt Zahra are appearing for the prosecution. 

Lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia are appearing parte civile.

11:04 The case is scheduled to continue on April 12. Massimo Costa
11:02 The sitting has now concluded. Massimo Costa
11:02 At this point, all the defence lawyers are reserving their position and right to raise preliminary pleas over the admissibility of evidence, in particular the evidence compiled which require particular expertise and whether any laws were breached, including European laws. Massimo Costa
11:00 Bajada is going on to explain how the call profiles led him to establish the exact time of the explosion. “I can only tell you that the two devices communicated. I can never say who is behind every device or who made what call.” The witnesses to the event were asked questions related to the time of explosion, and that information was then compared to the call profiles of the devices in question, he says. Massimo Costa
10:53 The two devices' activity fit exactly into the timeline of how the car bomb murder unfolded, as established by witnesses, calls to 112, civil protection department personnel, and so on, Bajada says. Massimo Costa
10:50 Bajada is elaborating on the SMS text sent to the receiver device. He explains that the purpose of the message was to give power to a component. After the explosion on 16 October, the two devices were never used again, he says. Massimo Costa
10:49 Inspector Arnaud is now continuing to question the witness. Responding, Bajada says that IMEI numbers have 14 digits and each digits contains specific details of the device. There is an international register of IMEI numbers, he says. Massimo Costa
10:45 Cuschieri then says he will ask for the removal of the cloned phone from the records of the case. Massimo Costa
10:44 As the lawyers argue the point hotly, Bajada remains serene as ever. “The [mobile phone data] clone is not in the acts, as I was not authorised to reveal the headers and footers of the data,” he tells the court. Massimo Costa
10:40 The Magistrate clearly states that Bajada cannot determine what is a threat or not, as this isn’t within his remit. Massimo Costa
10:39 Commodini Cachia says he would not be happy with such a system, since this would still fail to protect the wider sources. Fenech interjects: “Who is going to protect the rights of the accused? We are not interested in the source, but only in having information to defend the accused.” Massimo Costa
10:37 At this point, magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit says that Bajada was never authorised to analyse threats. Bajada then suggested that other parties suggest a list of keyword which could constitute threats, for which he would then search the data. Massimo Costa
10:37 Martin Fenech, lawyer to Vince Muscat, asks whether the data on Caruana Galizia’s phone included any threats to the journalist. The question arose in the courtroom on what constitutes a threat. Massimo Costa
10:33 Bajada continues giving testimony. He says that, before the arraignment of the three accused, the cloned phone had not been fully analysed. “I now have that information, but the magisterial inquiry is still underway and I cannot reveal such information,” he said, adding that he would oblige in doing so if authorised by the court. Massimo Costa
10:30 “But here we have very serious allegations here,” interjects Cuschieri. Subsequently, parte civile lawyer for the victim’s family Therese Commidini Cachia tells the court that it had to protect sources who had been passing on information to Caruana Galizia. Massimo Costa
10:28 Bajada tells Cuschieri that he had been told not to disclose sources, and that there was no mention of journalism in particular. Massimo Costa
10:27 The application to protect Caruana Galizia’s sources had been filed by the Institute of Maltese journalists and accepted by Magistrate Vella in late October 2017. Massimo Costa
10:26 But Cuschieri says he is “not interest in the journalistic sources”. “I’m interested in threats - if there are any threats they must be exhibited,” he says. Massimo Costa
10:24 Cuschieri is now shifting his questioning to Caruana Galizia’s mobile phone, asking about the sources on the phone. "They are journalistic sources, right?" he asks. At this point, Inspector Keith Arnaud, the lead inspector in the journalist’s murder investigation, object, saying that there is a decree by Magistrate Anthony Vella protecting Caruana Galizia’s sources. Massimo Costa
10:21 “You can't say with moral certainty what it [the device] was used for?” Cuschieri asks the witness. “I never said that. It wasn’t my brief,” Bajada replies, “…My brief was to analyse call profiles, I’m not an investigator.” Massimo Costa
10:19 The mobile in question sent a message “#rel1=on”, and this was received by the cell tower, Bajada says. The message remained “attached" to the antenna because the device it was sent to didn't have time to acknowledge delivery. Massimo Costa
10:18 Bajada goes on to explain how SMS antennae work, saying that every mobile phone communicates with the closest antenna. Asked what would happen if the closest antenna is out of order, he said it would then communicate with the one which is second closest. Massimo Costa
10:16 Cuschieri then asks about how Bajada had obtained the information regarding SMS texts which were sent, with the witness saying he had asked the magistrate for permission and that the data had been passed on to him by the police. “I never had direct communication with the FBI other than on two occasions, once in presence of the magistrate and once in presence of police,” he reiterates. Massimo Costa
10:15 Cuschieri questions the relevant of this. “And so?” he asks, with Bajada replying that he hadn’t drawn any conclusions. Massimo Costa
10:13 Bajada says he tried to analyse whether they had been used before that day, and that it resulted that they had. “On January 10, in August and on the day of the bombing. Only on those three dates.” Massimo Costa
10:12 Bajada continues speaking about the telecommunication devices, the activity of which which he had identified as being relevant to the case. He says that the devices in question communicated with each other, and that, after analysing the call profiles and the devices, he noticed something was "alarming" because one of the devices was not a phone, but a GPS receiver. Massimo Costa
10:08 Bajada says that, from its IMEI number he could determine that the device was a Nokia 105. Massimo Costa
10:06 "You can't say with moral certainty what type of device it was," Cuschieri says. Bajada replies: "The device was a sim 900. Yes I could... every device has a unique number, like a chassis number." Massimo Costa
10:05 Bajada attempts to elaborate that, for a specific period he gathered thousands of phone calls, and tries to say something about two particular numbers at the time of the explosion. However he is cut off by Cuschieri, who is aggressive in his questioning. Massimo Costa
10:02 Cuschieri went on to point out that Bajada has no accreditation. The lawyer then asked about call profiles in Bidnija, with Bajada saying he had made a request to all service providers for all calls on the day in that area. He said he checked the calls at the time of the explosion. Massimo Costa
10:00 Asked about the FBI's involvement, Bajada said he had nothing to do with them and that he only had a meeting with them at police HQ. Massimo Costa
09:58 William Cuschieri, Alfred Degiorgio’s lawyer, is questioning Bajada’s authorisation. Bajada says he was authorised for each of the actions he took. Cuschieri asks if there was an explicit decree. "I don't know if there was a decree, but I was expressly authorised by the magistrate,” replied the witness. Massimo Costa
09:57 Caruana Galizia's mobile phone was cloned, which allowed Bajada to download emails, files and so on. He is handing out copies of the data in court to the parties, except for the victim's phone data. Massimo Costa
09:54 This evidence will not be exhibited today, because the inquiring magistrate had imposed a ban to protect sources. Massimo Costa
09:53 Bajada also looked at SMS text messages, calls, and Whatsapp texts and media clips from all media houses. Massimo Costa
09:52 He also analysed CCTV footage from locations in Bidnija, Mosta and Sliema, together with calls to the 112 emergency number from the day Caruana Galizia was murdered. Massimo Costa
09:50 Court IT expert Martin Bajada takes the stand. He was appointed to analyze call profiles, blog and IT data and pass it on to Europol. Massimo Costa
09:48 Alfred Degiorgio, another of the accused, comes in to the packed courtroom. It is fuller than usual, as the magistrate is hearing a number of other cases before the Caruana Galizia sitting. Massimo Costa
09:44 George Degiorgio, one of the three accused, has just entered the courtroom, accompanied by security personnel. Security is tight with armed guards standing outside. Massimo Costa
09:34 In the last sittings, lawyers for the accused insisted with the court that IT expert Martin Bajada not be allowed to testify. The lawyers had presented a constitutional case asking the court to stop Bajada from testifying since over a theft and fraud conviction back in 1993, but it was turned down by the court. Matthew Vella
09:30 Welcome to this live-blog. IT expert Martin Bajada to testify in today's sitting. Matthew Vella