The deception that bowing to crooks in power guarantees our safety

Malta, before and after Yorgen Fenech’s arrest, and three years after the Caruana Galizia assassination: institutional murder cover-up and struggle for democracy

Flowers and candles commemorate Daphne Caruana Galizia at the Great Siege monument in Valletta
Flowers and candles commemorate Daphne Caruana Galizia at the Great Siege monument in Valletta

In a few decades, historians might refer to the arrest of Yorgen Fenech as a pivotal moment for independent Malta: for the very first time, a prime suspect in a political murder had been identified and brought to trial. This event was of paramount significance as it shed light on the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia after two years of delayed investigations.

The day of the arrest, November 20, 2019, also marked the beginning of a new era. The murder trial of the former tycoon set a decisive precedent: no one – no matter how powerful and well-connected – can be certain of being above the law.

The feverish last six weeks of 2019 will certainly remain imprinted in collective memory: amid a continuous stream of appalling revelations, the once-unshakeable authority of Joseph Muscat’s administration was challenged by thousands of protesters and began to fall apart like a house of cards. In the past eleven months, we witnessed high profile resignations and arrests which seemed inconceivable only a year ago.

First came the long-awaited resignations of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, followed by Joseph Muscat leaving his seat of power. Then, in June, the Labour Party expelled Mizzi due to his ties to the Panama Papers and Yorgen Fenech's company 17 Black. Despite Robert Abela’s insistence that Joseph Muscat is not “equally culpable”, the former Prime Minister has now resigned from Parliament, proving he is not Invictus. Schembri, the previously all-powerful Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, was arrested in connection with a passport sales kickback probe.

How has it become possible that the previously invincible rich and powerful are finally being held to account? Does this reflect institutional change or is it just aimed at patching up Malta’s international reputation?

Keith Schembri arriving in court on Monday to testify in the Yorgen Fenech compilation of evidence (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Keith Schembri arriving in court on Monday to testify in the Yorgen Fenech compilation of evidence (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

‘We can get rid of her easily’

Following Fenech’s arrest, one of the most discussed topics among the crowd of protesters outside Parliament and Castille was the motive of the crime. Although the journalist had hinted at Fenech’s company 17 Black in a cryptic post dating back to February 2017, this did not appear ‘threatening enough’ to have triggered her assassination.

But the Dubai company was not her only instance of reporting on Fenech’s fraudulent deals. In May 2017, she highlighted financial trouble at ElectroGas. The journalist wrote that the company was “not paying creditors or even salaries to employees.” The government secretly extended a €360 million state loan guarantee to the new power station right before the snap general election in 2017.

Revelations of financial trouble at the energy consortium, in which Fenech personally held 8 per cent of the Maltese share, may have contributed to his urge to silence Caruana Galizia. However, even this can hardly be the full story.

The compilation of evidence against Fenech and the public inquiry both laid bare the shocking extent of corruption and impunity within the police and judiciary. The trial hearings were also a demonstration of Malta’s toxic nexus of political and corporate power. Although the investigations have not yet concluded whether or not the former high-profile officials were part of the murder plot, it has emerged that they and other state appointees were actively involved in the cover-up.

Joseph Muscat exiting Castille for the last time, accompanied by his wife Michelle Muscat
Joseph Muscat exiting Castille for the last time, accompanied by his wife Michelle Muscat

By his own admission, former security official at the Office of the Prime Minister Kenneth Camilleri met suspect middleman and state witness Melvin Theuma on four occasions. “Kenneth from Castille”, Theuma claimed, had passed a message that the hitmen were to receive “one million each after getting bail.” Theuma also alleged that former Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar tipped him off on being a suspect in both a money laundering probe and the murder of Caruana Galizia.

The suspect mastermind and middleman seem to have planned the crime in cold blood, expecting not to be identified. “Aren’t these like the Maltese police? Don’t worry”, Fenech notoriously told Theuma in response to the latter’s concerns over the FBI getting on board with the investigations.

Although Fenech’s own testimonies do not equate to facts and still need to be verified, some of his statements are already worth paying attention to.

Fenech claimed under oath that Keith Schembri used to constantly feed him key details of the investigations, obtained through his “close relationship” with leading prosecutor Keith Arnaud. Allegedly, Schembri even informed the former tycoon about his phone being tapped. Considering that, in 2019, Fenech listed Joseph Muscat’s former Chief of Staff as his friend while facing cocaine possession charges in the U.S., all these allegations sound highly plausible.

According to the main suspect, the ‘true masterminds’ of the Caruana Galizia murder are “running around outside”. Fenech also stated that Joseph Muscat was one of three people who knew about his involvement in the assasination. The most outrageous claim that has emerged so far, however, was of Keith Schembri being the one wishing to kill the journalist because she was “trouble”.

Middleman: Melvin Theuma
Middleman: Melvin Theuma

If we are to trust Fenech’s testimonies, let’s pause and consider: in what way was Daphne Caruana Galizia “trouble” to the governing clique? Did she threaten their political power? Did the blog posts in which she exposed Schembri’s and Mizzi’s Panama companies kick-start investigations against them or lead to mass protests? Did the Egrant scandal affect the results of the snap general election? No, none of this. It seems that she simply annoyed them.

The intention to murder the journalist, Fenech testified, dated back to the pre-Panama Papers years, when Schembri met Fenech “almost every day” to seek a way to eliminate Caruana Galizia. The plan began to substantiate in 2016.

One particular phrase, dropped by the accused, best characterises his state of mind and his motives: “we can get rid of her easily”. Fenech mentioned the plan – which carried a price tag of €120,000 – to Schembri, and allegedly got the latter’s approval. “Mexxi, mexxi, mexxi”, the right hand man of Joseph Muscat purportedly responded to the former tycoon’s suggestion.

In other words, the gang assassinated the journalist not due to a threat posed to their power by her revelations, but simply because they were certain of getting away with it. They fully relied on the inaction of their loyal appointees, convinced of their financial power as well as their influence over police investigations and the judiciary as a guarantee against prosecution. They believed they could do anything at all without ever facing justice. Thankfully, they were wrong. Tragically, this became clear only after the deed.

Having navigated their way through previous corruption scandals without significant losses, the governing clique literally could not get away with murder – despite their expectations.

Alleged mastermind: Yorgen Fenech
Alleged mastermind: Yorgen Fenech

Malta: Overlords’ fiefdom or an EU member?

The most perplexing aspect brought out by the court hearings was Fenech’s firm confidence in being above the law. Even taking into account the unresolved political murders of the past and multiple institutional failures, one had to be absolutely delirious to assume they could avoid prosecution for a crime of such magnitude.

By October 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia was an internationally renowned journalist. She had featured on Politico’s list of “people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe.” The news of the murder immediately became an international sensation, publicised on the front pages of leading international media. She was also a member of an influential family and a mother of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. How was it possible to expect “getting rid of her easily” – in such a mafia-style assasination! – right under the gaze of the international community?

Sure, Yorgen Fenech had everyone in his pocket. He had friends in positions of power. He thought that impunity was the rule of the game. Indeed, he and his gang seemed to believe that Malta was their little fiefdom which they ruled as supreme overlords. However, they miscalculated: at some point, the rotten system cracked at the seams and the legal institutions responded as they must.

Had the gang’s assumptions about the extent of their power been correct, the public would have never learnt what came out in the past year. The harrowing revelations themselves are proof that delaying investigations further was beyond the overlords’ control. International scrutiny – substantially aided by the determined campaigning of the Caruana Galizia family – and the European Union all must have played a decisive role in making this happen.

The breakthrough in the investigation has dented impunity and altered the Maltese political landscape in unforeseen ways. Charges against a mighty tycoon have undermined the idea that the elite stand above the law. Finally, it catalysed a process of holding the powerful to account. If only a year ago, having a company in Panama was brushed off as too insignificant a reason for resignation, by now this has certainly changed.

A banner depicting former police chief Lawrence Cutajar strung up outside the law courts. The banner carries the  call for Cutajar's resignation
A banner depicting former police chief Lawrence Cutajar strung up outside the law courts. The banner carries the call for Cutajar's resignation

It is debatable what played the key role in inducing these tectonic shifts: the democratic pressure of the December protests or the financial pressure deployed by the European community. However, one thing is certain: Malta does not exist in a vacuum. International players can exert effective means of lobbying, lest overlords assume their power be unlimited.

The exposed institutional failures eroded the legitimacy of Malta as a jurisdiction within the EU and globally. One of the gravest consequences of the high profile corruption scandals is the risk of becoming the first EU member to be greylisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Council of Europe entrusted Moneyval to assess Malta’s compliance with international standards to counter money laundering.

In light of this, the arrests of Nexia BT partners and Keith Schembri are a response to international financial scrutiny, not pressure from below. They seem to be late attempts at patching up Malta’s international reputation.

Corruption, tarnished reputation and democracy

Considering what we learnt in the past eleven months, the reputational damage and its economic implications, however grave, must not be our major concern when it comes to corruption scandals. Our prime goal must be building a mass movement capable of challenging abuses of power.

The dispute over reputation is a double-edged sword.

Locally, the general public’s reaction to corruption-related matters is comparable to their dissatisfaction over a high number of COVID-19 swabs: the fewer the tests, some seem to believe, the lower the spread. By the same reasoning, if corruption remains unseen, it is as though it does not exist. The blemished reputation is therefore squarely the fault of the whistleblower, not the perpetrator.

The Nationalist Party survived its terms in power without comparable scandals, it could be argued, due to a lack of initiative to investigate their ties with big business. Plainly put, there was ‘less corruption’ because no one – including Daphne Caruana Galizia – was willing to attract international attention to it. In contrast, former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat repeatedly implied that Malta was being “tarnished from Bidnija”. “People among us are attacking the country”, he claimed in May 2017, referring to the journalist.

Ironically, the criminals who were running the country until recently continue to pose as patriots having Malta’s interests at heart. They bank on nationalistic and patriotic sentiments, hoping to remain invincible and immune to prosecution. It is no coincidence that two days prior to Fenech’s testimony in which he accused Schembri of being the true murder mastermind, Neville Gafà – the former person of trust at the Office of the Prime Minister – attempted to distract the public by attacking search and rescue NGOs.

The true patriots – the gang’s narrative goes – meant no harm. They only wished to eliminate a traitor who tarnished the country’s reputation, “#VivaMalta!”

It is utterly bewildering that many still remain loyal to the disgraced gang. Isn’t it clear that the criminals who expected to get away with murdering such a prominent person as Daphne Caruana Galizia could easily get rid of anyone at all?

People might be misled into thinking they have nothing to worry about: unlike the journalist, they do not intend to cause “trouble” to moguls. Some might assume that bowing to crooks in power guarantees their safety. But this idea is deceptive.

The powerful must be held to account because unchallenged authority and abuses of power threaten each one of us, and we cannot rely on international attention to always come to our aid. The Caruana Galizia murder trial and Yorgen Fenech’s own testimonies prove that one need not threaten the rulers’ influence in order to be eliminated. The powerful ‘can get rid of’ anyone simply because they can – if we allow them to get away with it.