One year on: The domino effect of Fenech’s arrest

JAMES DEBONO takes a look at the massive political changes and resignations triggered by the arrest of Yorgen Fenech a year ago

Yorgen Fenech
Yorgen Fenech

If one were to turn the clock back by a year, it would end up in a completely different political landscape. “This is not my last budget,” declared Joseph Muscat somewhat prematurely in October 2019, only a month before Yorgen Fenech’s arrest. Only before he had quashed speculation on his imminent resignation after failing to secure a top EU position some months before. And despite mounting evidence linking Yorgen Fenech – one of the owners of the LNG plant in Delimara to 17 Black, the secret company linked to Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi – both seemed solidly entrenched in their respective positions.

Even the Opposition’s calls for their resignation as well as that of Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and Attorney General Peter Grech had fallen on deaf ears as the electorate continued to reward Labour with electoral victories. On the opposition benches despite being trounced by Muscat in MEP elections in June, Adrian Delia had managed to weather the storm and seemed destined to continue leading his party to an electoral wipe-out in 2022. This was the political situation in the country just a month before the army intercepted Yorgen Fenech’s boat as he was allegedly trying to flee the island from Portomaso.

Trouble on the horizon

Behind this semblance of normality, the country was haunted by the unresolved assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose shrine in front of the law courts was still regularly cleared by government officials, only to be re-erected by activists.

While three hitmen were facing charges as the material executers, speculation on who had ordered the murder had been growing since 6 October when the Times had indicated a “major businessman” among three potential key suspects behind the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

In another ominous sign that trouble was brewing on the horizon, the United States embassy issued a statement on the second anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s assassination, offering its support to the investigations “if requested by Maltese authorities”.

And just five days before Fenech’s arrest the government gave in to two years of intense international pressure by the Caruana Galizia family by appointing a public inquiry led by three legal minds deemed acceptable by the family. A week before Fenech’s arrest, in a clear sign of unease, Keith Schembri avoided cross-examination about the once-secret offshore company 17 Black, as he dropped libel proceedings he had instituted against former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, triggering the first in a series of street protests which rocked the Muscat administration in later weeks.

Muscat’s final days

Yet even during the initial days following the arrest of taxi driver Melvin Thuema, who was later granted a presidential pardon, Muscat seemed determined to stay on until the resolution of the case, repeatedly crediting himself for having the murder resolved under his watch.

Yet it was Fenech’s proximity to close Muscat allies Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, both linked to him through 17 Black, which rendered Muscat’s position untenable. As the days rolled on the situation started slipping out of his control as protestors took to the streets. And amidst rumours of an alleged plot to frame Chris Cardona with the murder, it was a Cabinet revolt which ultimately pushed Muscat to resign. Still – he managed to do so on his own terms, securing an acclamation in his party on the eve of an election which saw continuity candidate Robert Abela win over Muscat’s least preferred candidate, Chris Fearne.

How Abela raised the bar

Yet upon being elected, Abela immediately sent a message that it was not business as usual, by firing Schembri ally Neville Gafà from the OPM and removing police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar from office.

On a symbolic level, one of Abela’s first decisions was to stop the removal of flowers from the Daphne shrine in front of the law courts, thus putting an end to a farce.

The number of casualties linked to Yorgen Fenech continued to snowball in the next months. Practically all those characters, which Simon Busuttil and civil society groups had asked to resign, lost their posts under Abela. While Abela was often overtaken by events and media reports as was the case with footage linking former police deputy chief Silvio Valletta to Yorgen Fenech and media revelations linking the Montenegro wind farm to Yorgen Fenech’s offshore activities, Abela did not refrain from drawing political conclusions, making Justyne Caruana resign over her husband’s actions and firing Konrad Mizzi from the PL parliamentary group even before he was even interrogated by the police.

In so doing Abela has not only broken with the impunity of the Muscat years but has effectively raised the bar, making it clear that political responsibility must be carried even in the absence of evidence of direct criminal responsibilities.  By raising the bar immediately after being elected, Abela may well have conditioned his own choices in a forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle that comes in the wake of speculation on WhatsApp chats linking key members and Yorgen Fenech.

Ironically, the dismal track record of his predecessor on governance issues has provided Abela an opportunity to shine.

While revelations involving characters like Mizzi, Schembri, Valletta and Cutajar were a stark reminder of the murky state of affairs under the Muscat administration, the instant resignations of those implicated (and even that of a spouse who had to bear responsibility for her husband’s actions), provided Abela an opportunity to raise the bar on ministerial ethics, which had sunk so low ever since Muscat retained Mizzi as minister and Schembri as his chief of staff.

Surely one may argue that Abela does not deserve much credit for restoring a sense of decency in the country. But by betraying the expectations of continuity, Abela has managed to positively surprise critics even by simply doing what is expected of him. Rather than raising expectations only to disappoint upon being elected, Abela intelligently lowered expectations before being elected, in a way, which makes his present actions more noteworthy.

The risk for Abela now is that by acting decisively, he may have raised the bar too high for himself to consistently apply it.

He has surely raised expectations of full closure on both the Caruana Galizia assassination and Panamagate, which he may find hard to satisfy without fatally undermining his predecessor’s legacy and place in history, something which may be unacceptable for Muscat loyalists. That also explains why a year after the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, Abela has remained hesitant on expressing a political judgement on the attempt at state capture which characterised the Muscat era.

Instead Abela continues to placate these elements by resorting to partisan attacks on critics thus showing no will to defuse the kind of partisanship which clouded the judgement of Labour activists and supporters who had previously absolved Schembri and Mizzi from any wrong doing.

No second republic on Abela’s horizon

Abela has been lukewarm on reforming the political system. While progress has been made in implementing the Venice Commission report and limiting the powers of the Prime Minister in strategic appointments, he showed little enthusiasm for more substantial reforms leading to the establishment of a ‘second republic’ once dreamed of by his predecessor.

Neither has Abela shown great enthusiasm to address the structural roots of corruption through more checks and balances and stricter rules on the financing of political parties, including their TV stations.  Abela has reiterated his opposition to the state financing of political parties and has refrained from increasing MPs’ salaries, a pre-condition for a full-time parliament.

Apart from a personal initiative by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia to start logging his meetings with lobbyists, a new code of ethics proposed by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, which foresees the creation of a registry for lobbyists still has to be enacted.

Abela has also shown little enthusiasm to break away from the pro-business mantra and the compromises he continues to make with powerful lobbies like the construction industry and the hunting community. Even in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, Abela was conditioned by business lobbies in giving the country a false sense of security in a rush to return the country to “normality”.

Missing links

While Abela has taken decisive steps in establishing a sense of political decency and accountability for all those suspiciously linked to Yorgen Fenech and the Panama scandals, the police still have to establish whether high officials in the Muscat administration have been involved in obstruction of justice in the assassination of Caruana Galizia.

Neither has the police thrown any light on the alleged frame-up of former minister Chris Cardona by Keith Schembri. One notable missing link remains the identification and arrest of those who made the bomb which killed Daphne Caruana Galizia, a trail which could throw a light on other unresolved crimes.

Despite the lack of progress on several frontsm the police interrogation of Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri, Brian Tonna and Karl Cini indicates that under new police commissioner Angelo Gafà the police is less conditioned by the kind of political considerations which facilitated the culture of impunity characterizing previous administrations.

Creating the political environment for the police to carry out its work without fear and favour may well be Robert Abela’s greatest legacy.

Reforms enacted, proposed since Fenech’s arrest

  • New method to appoint police commissioner, through a public call and shortlisting by Public Appointments commission
  • Role of State Advocate and Attorney General separated
  • Election of President by two-thirds majority proposed in constitutional amendments
  • Registry of lobbyists proposed by Standards Commissioner