[WATCH] Keith Schembri withdraws 17 Black defamation suit to avoid being questioned

Keith Schembri says he 'reluctantly' has to drop libel suit not to prejudice his fundamental rights • Simon Busuttil calls on Prime Minister to resign • PN says Schembri should be shown the door

The Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri
The Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri
Keith Schembri drops 17 Black suit

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri has announced in court he will drop a defamation suit against former PN leader Simon Busuttil, in order to avoid being questioned about the 17 Black offshore company.

His lawyer Edward Gatt told Magistrate Victor Axiak that Schembri, whose offshore Panama company was tied to the mysterious Dubai company 17 Black, was “feeling that many of his fundamental and constitutional rights are being prejudiced and because the witness is collaborating with the judicial authorities in other, connected, proceedings, he is at this stage unconditionally ceding the libel suit.”

The prime minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri was expected to testify about the secret Dubai company, believed to have been used to channel payments through his own offshore Panama company.

The former Nationalist leader Simon Busuttil had accused Schembri of receiving bribes through the company, named in leaked e-mails as one of two companies that would pay $2 million to Schembri’s and Konrad Mizzi’s Panama companies.

But Schembri was reluctant to be cross-examined on the subject of the Dubai-registered company, arguing that the company information was not in the public domain at the time that the alleged defamatory speech by Busuttil, about corruption and the Panama Papers, was delivered in March 2016.

Simon Busuttil: PM should resigned after Schembri withdraws libel

In the last sitting magistrate Victor Axiak denied Schembri’s request that he be exempted from testifying about 17 Black.

Schembri’s lawyer Pawlu Lia told the court that his client had been advised not to answer questions about facts under a magisterial inquiry on 17 Black. The court said that irrespective of what is said in inquiries, the questions would be admissable. If the questions are incriminating, the witness has a right not to answer them, said the magistrate.

Schembri refused to answer lawyer Jason Azzopardi's questions at least four times, with the court warning him it would take sanctions if he refuses to answer. He then proceeded to withdraw the defamation suit.

Simon Busuttil: Prime Minister and Keith Schembri must resign

Former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil called for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri after the latter evaded testifying in a libel case he had filed against him.

Busuttil said that Schembri’s decision to drop the libel case he had filed against him showed the accuracy in his 2016 statements to the effect that the PM’s chief of staff is corrupt.

“Instead of answering to the statements I made, that of him being corrupt, in which he could have shown that I was mistaken or incorrect, Keith Schembri dropped the case and fled,” Busuttil said.

Busuttil said that Schembri attempting to avoid testifying in four separate methods: when he asked for the magistrate to be recused, to not testify because he had other inquiries filed against him and couldn’t incriminate himself, to appeal the magistrate’s decree and to drop the case in an effort to file a constitutional case.

“These excuses were all denied, and this tells me nothing but the fact that I was correct,” Busutill said.

The former PN leader once again called for the resignation of Keith Schembri. He also said that Joseph Muscat should shoulder political responsibility and resign as well.

PN: Keith Schembri should either resign or be removed

The Nationalist Party issued its own statement to call for the resignation of Keith Schembri but stopped short of demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

“Keith Schembri did everything in his power to evade answering questions in the libel case that he himself filed. The case is about allegations of corruption,” the PN said, adding that Schembri avoided testifying to not incriminate himself. 

“Schembri needs to resign or be removed from his chief of staff office immediately,” the PN said.

Keith Schembri responds: 'I'm answering all questions in the ongoing magisterial inquiry'

The Prime Minister's chief of staff said in a statement that he was answering all questions being put to him in the ongoing magisterial inquiry. 

Schembri said the libel case was filed by himself on April 2016 after PN leader Simon Busuttil made slanderous allegations about him.

"These allegations were in no way related to the company 17 Black. These libel proceedings relate to other allegations made by Busuttil before information about 17 Black was even released in public," he said, adding that Busuttil's cries of corruption against him had not been backed up by evidence back then.

Schembri had asked for magistrate Victor Axiak's recusal, saying that Axiak had offered legal services to Kasco Group of which Schembri was a director. Axiak, he said, also offered legal counsel to Nexia BT, the auditors of Kasco Group. Schembri said the request for recusal was made to ensure that justice would not only be done but seen to be done, adding that "surprisingly" Busuttil had agreed with the magistrate's decision not to withdraw from the case.

"I felt that I had to drop the libel cases because I felt that today's proceedings could prejudice fundamental and constitutional rights due to the ongoing magisterial inquiry that was called for by Busuttil himself."

11:07 Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sister storms out of the courtroom, exclaiming incredulousness at the situation. Matthew Vella
11:05 Edward Gatt cut off the magistrate as the court warned the witness for the last time. “Because the applicant is feeling that many of his fundamental and constitutional rights are being prejudiced and because the witness is collaborating with the judicial authorities in other, connected, proceedings, he is at this stage unconditionally ceding the libel suit.” Matthew Vella
11:03 Sitting resumes. Matthew Vella
10:52 The Court at this stage ordered the case be suspended for 5 minutes. Defence lawyer Jason Azzopardi said it’s “unheard of” that a witness stops testifying to consult with his lawyer. The court said it would postpone until 11am despite the objection. Matthew Vella
10:50 Schembri repeats his refusal. Matthew Vella
10:50 Lawyers squabbled over a document, a screenshot from the DOI press release, which had the page numbers blacked out. Schembri was asked what led him to issue the press release “I have advice that I am not to speak about the inquiry,” he said.

Court obliged the witness to reply but he repeated the answer. Court explained that there were sanctions he was facing if he failed to answer, and that it didn’t want to reach that stage. The question was given again.
Matthew Vella
10:42 The court upheld the objection, but said the witness could later be reproduced as a witness for the plaintiffs. Matthew Vella
10:41 Lawyer Jason Azzopardi asks him about a press release he had released via the DOI about 17 Black. Instant objection by Pawlu Lia. He had not mentioned this in the examination in chief. Matthew Vella
10:40 Schembri takes the stand. Matthew Vella
10:35 Edward Gatt declared, in view of the decrees handed down, that Schembri would be cross-examined today without prejudice to the rights he mentioned earlier or other proceedings he may file. Court warned the parties to maintain decorum, saying that he didn’t want a mass meeting. Matthew Vella
10:28 Peter Fenech objected to the request for an appeal. The court at this stage denied the request, but asked the parties to keep the court informed at every stage of Constitutional proceedings before the First Hall Civil Court in its Constitutional Jurisdiction. Matthew Vella
10:14 Case is suspended for five minutes. Matthew Vella
10:11 Edward Gatt asked for leave to appeal the decision to deny the request.
The court also denied that request because the reason mentioned by Schembri’s lawyers was catered for at law, which states that the appeal could only be made after the sentence.

Gatt informed the court that he intends to file constitutional proceedings, because the order given by the court today impinges upon the right to silence.
Matthew Vella
10:05 The court pointed out that contrary to what Gatt had claimed, the cross-examination of the applicant never even started in these proceedings. It rejected the request because a request of this nature had already been made in the proceedings in June 2018 and had been rejected. Matthew Vella
10:05 Peter Fenech objected to the request. Whilst a similar request had been filed before another court which had parallel elements to the present one, because today the request has been extended. “Every inquiry is secret,” Fenech said, adding that he had no control over when witnesses testify in inquiries.
“This case has been pending for 3 and a half years. A case filed by the plaintiff and over a year for this cross-examination to continue and under article 589 of the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure, the witness has sufficient security… he cannot be forced to answer questions, when the answer may subject him to criminal proceedings.”
Matthew Vella
10:05 Gatt: “I filed the libel and have all interest to have it continue without obstacles. I’m not here to lengthen it without reason. After filing them someone went to open inquiries. I am taking an active role in them…” Matthew Vella
10:05 Edward Gatt asked that the plaintiff does not continue his cross-examination and this as previously decreed by other courts in parallel cases, there are pending inquiries against Schembri. The right not to testify, pending judicial proceedings is a right protected by the Constitution. He asked that his cross-examination continue after he testifies in the pending inquiries. Matthew Vella
10:04 With respect to the request for recusal, the court said the reasons given for this were not listed in the article of the law (art 730 of chapter 12) and so declared that the legal services which the magistrate had given to Casco Ltd as well as to another company, “mentioned erroneously and which is not a party to this case” had been given before or during the year 2010 and have absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this case. “For these reasons, as well as because the court is relying on the Chief Justice’s declaration during the opening of the year, in which he stated that a judge or magistrate is obliged to decide and not abstain unless clearly one of the reasons in the law result, the court is denying the request and ordering the continuation of the case.” Matthew Vella
10:04 Defence lawyer Peter Fenech told the court that any undue influence on it had to be reported to the President of the Republic as well as the commissioner of police for investigation. The court said it had already reported the incident to the President, just hours after receiving this information. Matthew Vella
10:04 Schembri’s lawyer Edward Gatt asked that the court recuse itself, given that before his appointment, the magistrate appeared to have given a service to Nexia BT and that the cross-examination so far shows questions would be made on the alleged involvement of this company. Matthew Vella




Earlier at the start of the sitting, the magistrate tasked with a defamation suit filed by Keith Schembri against former PN leader Simon Busuttil, said that recently he had been approached by a third party, allegedly for a party in this case, with the message that he should recuse himself.

The court said it had, for some years, assisted Keith Schembri’s company Kasco in the past. It said that it had not felt the need to declare this in open court, but it was pertinent now.

Lawyer Peter Fenech thanked the court for bringing this to the attention of the defence at the first opportunity. He declared that he had no objection to having Magistrate Axiaq hear the case. 

Busuttil, MEP David Casa and Peter Caruana Galizia were present in the courtroom.

Lawyers Edward Gatt, Mark Vassallo and Pawlu Lia are representing Schembri in the proceedings. Lawyers Peter Fenech and Jason Azzopardi are appearing for Simon Busuttil.