Over 100 people interviewed in Egrant inquiry, magistrate has ‘no one to brainstorm with’, MEPs’ report says

Malta’s constitutional set up allows misuse of power, MEP Sven Giegold tells PN MPs, while PL MPs say Chris Cardona’s alleged meeting with Caruana Galizia murder suspect reflects Malta’s societal norms

MEPs Ana Gomes,  Sven Giegold and David Casa have issued a report on their visit to Malta on 1 June
MEPs Ana Gomes, Sven Giegold and David Casa have issued a report on their visit to Malta on 1 June

A report issued by the three MEPs who visited Malta earlier this month has highlighted that over 100 people were interviewed by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja in the ongoing Egrant case, however it said the inquiry was a “one-man job” for the magistrate, who has “no one to brainstorm with.”

Bugeja, who is leading the inquiry into Egrant and 17 Black, told MEPs Ana Gomes, Sven Giegold and David Casa - during their visit to Malta on 1 June, in a follow-up to the European Parliament’s rule of law delegation which came to Malta last year - that despite having a substantial caseload, he had been working “around the clock” on the inquiry.

The magistrate said his powers were “limited” and that “much of the action, [which was] required and requested in the public domain, rests on the police’s shoulders.”

It would be up to the Police Commissioner to decide whether to open investigations based on the inquiry, once it is concluded, and should he choose not to do so, the Attorney General would then have to consider whether to order the police to start an investigation, Bugeja said.

He also underlined that the magisterial investigation was carried out in total separation from the police, with no exchange of information taking place.

He told the MEPs that information provided to the Maltese judicial authorities by the German authorities, on what they had learned through the Panama Papers, was “proving useful and being analysed”.

Not all Caruana Galizia murder leads being followed, MEPs claim

In the 20-page report – drawn-up following other meetings the MEPs had with Opposition and government MPs; Magistrate Anthony Vella who is leading the Daphne Caruana Galzia murder inquiry; and with various civil society activists – they claimed the police were “ostensibly” not following all relevant leads in the murder.

The MEPs said that, “shockingly”, the police had not thoroughly investigated witness accounts that Economy Minister Chris Cardona had been seen drinking with one of the suspects in the journalist’s murder, prior to the arrest.

Noting that the police had denied someone in the force working on the investigation had tipped-off the suspects before they were arrested, they said that a police officer - named by PN MP Jason Azzopardi as Sergeant Aldo Cassar - had been transferred from the investigations brigade.

They went on to allege that there was a link between the offer of a promotion to the position of judge to Magistrate Vella, and efforts to “delay and stall the investigation.”

They said that the murder investigation was stalling in a way which indicated a plan to ensure the blame rested on the three suspected bombers, and to then eventually let them go free after 20 months of detention.

Regarding Pilatus Bank, the MEPs said Malta’s Central Bank appeared to be processing payments on behalf of the bank “under circumstances that clearly require monitoring and oversight by the European Central Bank”.

Stakeholders in the country’s financial services sector are concerned that Malta is unprepared for the evaluation by Moneyval - the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering evaluation committee - later this year, the report said, with many fearing Malta’s efforts to become a cryptocurrency hub will lead to a further infiltration of organised crime.

Police should partner with Guardia di Finanza on murder investigation

The MEPs recommended that the Maltese police foster a partnership with Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, and other Italian anti-terrorism and organised crime authorities, in the Caruana Galizia’s murder investigation, with the aim of fighting oil smuggling.

They said the new European Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, LIBE, and its financial crimes committee, TAX3, should soon send a delegation to Malta to take stock of developments in the journalist's murder investigatons, including through meetings with the Caruana Galizia family, the Police Commissioner, magistrates, the AG and the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit.

LIBE should also urgently meet with EUROPOL officers assisting in the investigation, to clarify the nature and origin of the Agency’s limitations in working on the case with the Maltese authorities - namely that it has to rely on information provided by local police - the report said.

EUROPOL and FBI cooperation ‘”excellent”

Magistrate Antony Vella confirmed to the MEPs that cooperation, between EUROPOL and the FBI, and his investigation team had been “excellent” and had proved very useful in identifying the detained suspects and mapping communications involving them.

Asked by Gomes whether the magistrate had the records of the Malta Secret Services, in relation to reports she had heard that one of the arrested suspects had been under surveillance for months before the assassination, and also several weeks after it, Vella stressed he could not comment on the substance of his findings.

He said the suspects would be held in detention without formally being charged for up to 20 months.

PN MPs highlight sense of impunity

Nationalist MPs said their major concern was that the AG and Police Commissioner had failed to act, as they insisted that there was a “sense of impunity” in Malta.

They discussed the sale of passport programme, telling the MEPs that the PN was against the IIP scheme, but only accepted it on the understanding that the name of the persons applying for citizenship be published.

“The PN believes that these conditions are not being met, and that the European Commission is not acting on it,” the report said.

“No one believes Malta’s institutions are independent anymore,” the PN MPs said, “It is proving difficult to attract good investment… Malta is interested in attracting the blockchain industry, but the fear is that the good names will go to countries with more stringent rules.”

The PN also stressed that anti-SLAPP legislation had to be taken up at EU level for it to be effective, as they complained that a proposal for such legislation which they had presented in the national parliament had been “categorically rejected” by the government.

Giegold told the MPs that the Daphne Project revelations, which were causing Malta reputational damage, had not triggered any police investigations, something which would have been the case “in any other EU country”.

The MEP said some on the problems in the country are not only caused by the wrong people in government, but also helped by the constitutional set up “that allows misuse of power too easily.”

“As long as Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prim Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri stay in office, the reputational damage will not be solved,” Giegold underlined.

Despite sense of prosperity, poverty on the rise, PD MPs say

Democratic Party MPs told the MEPs that despite the sense of prosperity in Malta, things on the ground were “different” and poverty is “on the rise”.

PD said that “whole PL parliamentary representation has been, de facto, bought, since there is no division between the Cabinet and the back benchers, who are representing the government on a board or have other roles within government…”

They said that an indicator of artificial wealth was the fact that VAT was hardly being paid, and promised to send information on this to Giegold, when he asked for evidence.

MEPs were also told that “many in Malta completely toe the line of the current government”, and that the police “have had enough of the Caruana Galizia matter and want to move on”, with the PD claiming this was the widespread perception in the country.

Regarding the Vitals hospitals deal, PD said this as costing Malta much more than when the hospitals were state owned, adding that it was “convinced that the money the company had promised to invest is the same money it is expecting from the government.”

“The Government is still paying for the running of the hospitals, so what are the investors investing in, exactly?” PD asked.

PL MPs throw cold water on murder suspects tip-off

Labour Party MPs told the three MEPs that the allegations made by Azzopardi, that someone in the police had tipped off the Caruana Galizia murder suspects, “lacked credibility”, as they argued Azzopardi had “not dared repeat the allegation outside Parliament”.

Replying to a question by Gomes on why the police officer who allegedly tipped of one of the suspects had been transferred to another position outside the investigations team, PL MP Robert Abela maintained it was not factual the officer in question had been transferred for that reason.

PL MPs justified Cardona’s alleged meeting with one of the suspects by underscoring that “in Malta’s social context, parliamentarians, ministers and public figures speak to hundreds of people daily.” “This is the reality in a small country,” they said.

The PL MPs refuted the notion that nothing had happened regarding the accusations directed towards Mizzi and Schembri, noting that a magisterial inquiry was still ongoing regarding the allegations.

“We need to let justice take its course. There is due process and the rule of law - we need to wait for this process to take its course and cannot be judge and jury. We need to let the institutions do their work,” the PL stressed.

In response, Giegold noted that Malta’s “peculiar culture” placed it “in a different basket with the rest of the EU when it coms to investigations by the police, judiciary and political accountability.”

He was surprised, he said, that MPs had not ensured that an inquiry committee was set in place to follow-up “serious corruptions allegations”, and that “no one was forced to resign as investigations based on strong evidence were set up”.

Replying to a question by Giegold on why former FIAU official Jonathan Ferris was not given whistleblower protection, the PL MPs said that he “had never actually applied for whistleblower protection. He filed a judicial process in court asking for it, but that was not the right procedure.”

PL MP Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi defended that government’s stance on the anti-SLAPP private members bill presented by the Opposition, saying the proposal had been based “on a number of authoritative opinions” which were “legally flawed”.

Emphasising that Labour was “not in favour of SLAPP”, he claimed the new media law already had anti-SLAPP measures.

Abela also highlighted that the majority of the “topics” dealt with by the Daphne Project were already covered by the ongoing magisterial inquiries.

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