Lawyer to Caruana Galizia murder suspect Vince Muscat renounces brief

After pardon is mooted in press, lawyer to Vincent Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’ Arthur Azzopardi renounces brief for his client

 The lawyer of Vincent Muscat ‘il-Kohhu’, one of the suspects accused of the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, has formally renounced his brief for his client.

In what is a stunning turn of events, not least for his former client, Arthur Azzopardi – long-time legal representative of Muscat – filed his official renunciation of the brief on Friday morning.

In a comment to this newspaper, Azzopardi said the decision to drop Muscat’s brief had been a decision pertaining to his legal partnership and taken together with his partners. He did not comment any further.

Arthur Azzopardi
Arthur Azzopardi

But it is a situation that leaves much to be desired for his client, who was revealed to have requested a pardon in return for information on the murder of Caruana Galizia – an invidious position for a suspect who is believed to be the weakest link in the chain of alleged murderers.

Muscat, 57, was charged in December 2017 along with brothers George Degiorgio ‘ic-Ciniz’ and Alfred Degiorgio ‘il-Fulu’, with the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia on 16 October 2017.

Yet just two weeks ago, Muscat was said to have proven willing to provide information about his role in the execution in return for a reduced sentence – which has come by offering the police the name of a middleman implicated in the murder, in a bid for a pardon or reduced sentence.

But investigators have, however, insisted that any information offered should also assist police in solving cases related to murders by car bombs – 19 in the last 10 years alone – or cases such as the 2010 HSBC heist, in which Muscat is accused for his part in the robbery. Muscat is, in fact, expected to stand trial for his role in the HSBC heist at the start of 2020. His defence lawyer in this case had been Azzopardi.

Vince Muscat escorted out of the courtroom after facing charges for the HSBC heist
Vince Muscat escorted out of the courtroom after facing charges for the HSBC heist

Azzopardi only took on Muscat’s brief as defence counsel in the Caruana Galizia murder in July 2019, taking over from legal aid Martin Fenech. Immediately, Azzopardi set out to obtain bail for Muscat after the end of the compilation of evidence against the three men.

Azzopardi has also argued in court that Muscat was almost never mentioned by the witnesses who presented their evidence to the court. “We were told that he is a spotter, but… it is not normal to have a spotter who is blind in one eye,” he pointed out, referring to Muscat’s disability – a consequence from being shot at close range outside his Msida home back in April 2014. Jonathan Pace, who was charged with the attempted murder, was later gunned down while on the balcony of his Fgura home in August 2014.

Muscat had been out on bail since November 2010 before his arrest in December 2017.

Azzopardi also filed a constitutional application on behalf of Alfred Degiorgio back in July, claiming a breach of human rights and damages for his client over the Attorney General’s slow progress in the prosecution of the Group 4 heist criminal case, for which Degiorgio had been arrested in 2000 together two other conspirators.

Degiorgio is represented by William Cuschieri in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case.

Judge’s recusal

Still unexplained so far is the recusal of the judge who was slated to preside the trial of the three men – Aaron Bugeja. Edwina Grima has been selected as the judge to preside over the trial now.

No date has been set for the trial by jury 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.

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.

Additionally, his promotion to judge was attacked by 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 independence of the judiciary.

Police are becoming even more wary of attempts by the accused in the Caruana Galizia murder case to file rafts of constitutional cases, which could breed a sufficient “pre-trial publicity” with which to attack future jury selections.