Judge in Daphne Caruana Galizia murder trial recuses himself

The reasons for Mr Justice Aaron Bugeja's recusal are as yet unknown

Aaron Bugeja (centre) has a hard-earned reputation for gravitas and impartiality but could have felt unable to operate with the serenity that other judges would have, given the Egrant inquiry he led
Aaron Bugeja (centre) has a hard-earned reputation for gravitas and impartiality but could have felt unable to operate with the serenity that other judges would have, given the Egrant inquiry he led

The judge slated to preside the trial of the three men accused of the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has recused himself, MaltaToday has learnt.

The reasons given for the recusal of Mr Justice Aaron Bugeja are not yet known.

Edwina Grima has been selected as the judge to preside over the trial.

No date has been set for the trial by jury of brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, and Vincent Muscat – who are accused of planting the bomb which claimed Caruana Galizia’s life on 16 October 2017 – but the recusal can only push the case back.

As a magistrate, Bugeja had investigated the Egrant affair, a story reported by Caruana Galizia in which the late journalist claimed that the wife of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was the owner of a secret offshore company in Panama, and had received a $1 million payment from Azerbaijan’s ruling family. The allegations turned out to be false or not backed by evidence: neither Caruana Galizia nor her confidants were able to supply proof of the allegation, and no material proof existed of banking transactions at Pilatus Bank intended for the Muscats.

The exhaustive 1,500-page magisterial inquiry was only completed in 2018, with Bugeja concluding there was no evidence linking the Muscats to the Panama company Egrant Inc, revealed in the Panama Papers scandal of 2016 by the same journalist.

Thought to be the most costly inquiry in Maltese history, only the conclusions of the report have so far been made public, with a court action to have the rest of Bugeja’s report released to public scrutiny so far being unsuccessful.

This is not the first time that the criminal proceedings against the Degiorgios and Muscat have stalled due to recusals. The first two magistrates tasked with hearing the compilation of evidence had also recused themselves – the first was Donatella Frendo Dimech, who recused herself because she had been in the same school as Caruana Galizia’s sister 34 years ago, and then Charmaine Galea, who withdrew because she had been the subject of the journalist’s criticism on her appointment to the Bench in 2013.

Newly-appointed judge Aaron Bugeja was drawn by lot to preside over the trial of the three men accused of having killed Caruana Galizia. Muscat and the Degiorgio brothers were arrested in December 2017 but have spent the past two years in and out of court as prosecutors presented evidence they had compiled against them, which they have challenged in various constitutional proceedings.

Bugeja, who has a hard-earned reputation for gravitas and impartiality, could have felt unable to operate with the serenity that other judges would have given the Egrant context.

His promotion to judge remains the subject of a constitutional case filed by the NGO Repubblika, which wants to nullify the judicial appointments made at the start of 2019 before the Maltese government implemented the recommendations by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

Malta’s judiciary is vetted by a commission for judicial appointments but is ultimately selected by the Prime Minister.

Yet last week the Constitutional Court dismissed a request for an interim measure to revoke the appointment of the six new members of the judiciary. The case continues in a superior court.

Contacted for comment, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici denied knowledge of the Bugeja recusal, stating that they were internal court procedures to which he is not privy. “I am not informed of recusals,” he said.

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