Zammit Lewis will not resign, apologises for ‘Ġaħan’ quip

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis is refusing to accept that his position in Cabinet has been compromised as a result of the familiarity with Yorgen Fenech when it was was known he was the owner of 17 Black

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis

Edward Zammit Lewis says he will not resign despite his friendship with murder suspect Yorgen Fenech and insists he has “always acted with integrity”.

The Justice Minister, however, has apologised to Labour Party voters for describing them with the derogatory term ‘Ġaħan’ in a WhatsApp exchange with Fenech.

Pressure has been mounting on the minister to resign from Cabinet after a series of messages were outed in the media. But Zammit Lewis was reluctant to entertain the idea of stepping down from Cabinet when speaking to MaltaToday.

“I will not be resigning as minister since there are no grounds for a resignation and I conducted reforms that no justice minister conducted since our nation’s independence,” he said.

The minister insisted he never hid the fact that he knew Fenech. “I always stated the truth, contrary to Opposition members who claimed otherwise, and eventually resulted that they were lying.”

Zammit Lewis insisted he always acted with integrity when pressed as to whether his position in Cabinet has been compromised as a result of the familiarity with Fenech and the latter’s ongoing murder proceedings.

“I can also state with a firm conviction that I have always acted with integrity throughout my political career. No friendship has ever affected my performance as part of the legislative or the executive,” he said. “I am sure that you very well know that criminal proceedings are the sole responsibility of the Courts of Justice, separate and distinct from the government.”

Conflict of interest

However, Zammit Lewis sidestepped the question when it was pointed out that he has a clear conflict of interest as a member of parliament’s Standards Committee in the ethics case concerning Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar and a property sale involving Fenech.

“As regards, any parliamentary Standing Committee, I will regulate myself in accordance to our code of ethics as MPs in due course,” he replied cryptically, reiterating that no friendship has ever affected his performance as an MP.

He insisted that as minister responsible for the justice sector, he always served his duties “diligently and, more important, proactively”. The minister added that he undertook ambitious reforms in the sector in the interest of “effective justice and strengthening institutions”.

Zammit Lewis and Fenech exchanged more than 700 WhatsApp messages between January and October 2019, some of which were released in the media last week.

Fenech was arrested in November 2019 and charged with masterminding the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

No discussion on 17 Black

The messages were exchanged at a time when it was publicly known that Fenech owned Dubai company 17 Black, named in the Panama Papers as one of two client companies that had to transfer money to the Panama companies of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri.

Between January and July, Zammit Lewis was a backbench MP until he was appointed European Affairs minister instead of Helena Dalli who was nominated to serve as European Commissioner.

Asked whether it was appropriate for him to communicate with Fenech despite the 17 Black revelation, Zammit Lewis said that he never discussed 17 Black with Fenech. “Nor did Yorgen Fenech refer to it in my presence,” he added.

The overriding narrative at the time within the Labour Party was to dismiss the concerns about 17 Black despite the serious allegations that it may have been the conduit for bribery involving major government projects.

The minister denied ever receiving monetary donations or other freebies from Fenech. “Yorgen Fenech never gave me or any members of my family any donations or freebies. I confirm that I paid for all my political events with the Tumas Group since the start of my political career,” he said.

‘Gahan’ apology

In a lengthy WhatsApp exchange that happened in May 2019, Zammit Lewis lamented with Fenech that he did not have support in the party, was ‘never wanted’ and that Labourites underrate him.

At one point, Zammit Lewis even referred to Labour voters disparagingly as ‘Ġaħan’, which is a derogatory term meaning ‘fools’. Last week, the minister refused to apologise, insisting his words were taken out of context. However, Zammit Lewis has now recanted and admitted the choice of words was wrong.

“I grew up in the Labour Party, I have been a Labour voter myself all my life and practically occupied all available posts since my youth days within the Malta Labour Party. I apologise to all Labour voters for that text message (‘Ġaħan’) you are referring to. The intended context was a reference to the need to have an electoral system that does not make way to clientelism. However, I do admit that the choice of words was one which can give rise to various interpretations,” he replied.

In the same lengthy exchange, Zammit Lewis also used the words ‘tfal u pożi’ (children and poses), and ‘political competence zero’ in what was ostensibly a reference to his parliamentary colleagues.

But the minister insisted his relationship with colleagues is excellent. “I feel privileged to have an excellent relationship with my colleagues. Together, as a government, we have achieved unprecedented results in the interest of Malta and our citizens,” he said.

Zammit Lewis was appointed justice minister in January 2020 by the incoming Prime Minister Robert Abela.

Over the past 18 months he piloted a number of reforms intended to improve good governance as Malta faced the brunt of international scrutiny following Caruana Galizia’s murder.