A Maltese multi-millionaire was charged with complicity in the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, marking the first big breakthrough in almost two years in a tortuous investigation that has reached into the prime minister’s office.
Yorgen Fenech, 38, one of Malta’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, pleaded not guilty shortly after 8 p.m. local time in the main courthouse in Valletta, the capital. His lawyers made no request for bail and he left the courthouse in a police van after surrendering his passport and credit cards. He is to be detained until his trial starts, likely next month.
Joseph Muscat, the prime minister, is expected to resign shortly in what would amount to the wholesale gutting of his office and inner circle. Local media reported on Friday that he intended to step down as the scandal unfolded, but wanted to see the arraignment of Mr. Fenech before leaving. Reports said he may go as early as Sunday.
Early this week, Keith Schembri, the prime minister’s chief of staff and close friend, resigned. Schembri was arrested and detained for questioning in connection to the murder case. He was later released. Two senior cabinet ministers also resigned.
Mr. Fenech was also charged with promoting a criminal organization and conspiracy. He was first arrested on Nov. 20, when his luxury yacht was trying to flee Maltese waters. He was one of the chief murder suspects and, in an attempt to receive a presidential pardon – he failed – claimed that Mr. Schembri was behind the murder and arranged the 150,000 euros payment to the hitmen. Three Maltese men are in prison awaiting trial on charges they planted the car bomb that killed the journalist.
Mr. Schembri has denied any role in Ms. Caruana’s death.
Mr. Fenech wore a dark suit in the small courtroom and sat hunched over on a bench directly in front of many members of Ms. Caruana Galizia’s family, including her three sons, sisters, husband and parents. After Mr. Fenech left the courthouse, the family members asked to be left alone, though Corinne Vella, one of the journalist’s sisters made a statement as her eyes welled up in tears.
“We now expect the prime minister to leave office, and parliament with immediate effect to allow a free and full investigation into his and Keith Schembri’s role in Daphne’s assassination,” she said.
She later said “I will be content when full justice is delivered.”
A couple of hours after the arraignment, Matthew Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist and software engineer, told The Globe and Mail that “It was a relief to see him taken off to jail in handcuffs.”
Ms. Caruana Galizia was assassinated in October, 2017 as she was driving away from her rural home. She was Malta’s best-know investigative journalist and spent years using her blog, Running Commentary, to make allegations of corruption that reached right into the prime minister’s office.
She earned many enemies, was regularly denounced by One, the Maltese broadcaster that is owned by the ruling Labour Party, and received flurries of libel notices, none of which broke her will to expose government corruption. Unknown assailants tried to burn down her house twice.
Her blog reported on the existence of secret Panamanian companies that Mr. Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister who resigned this week, had set up after Mr. Muscat’s Labour Party won the 2013 election. Before her murder, she linked both men to secret payments made by Mr. Fenech through a Dubai company called 17 Black.
Last year, a Reuters investigation revealed that Mr. Fenech was the owner of 17 Black, which was named in emails uncovered by Malta’s financial regulators as the vehicle to fund the secret Panamanian companies. Mr. Fenech was also a key player in Electro Gas, the consortium that won the bid in 2013 to build a gas-fired power plant in Malta. Ms. Caruana Galizia questioned the legitimacy of the contract
The journalist’s death and the tortuous, slow-moving investigation angered civil society and freedom of speech groups in Malta and elsewhere in the European Union and sent thousands of Maltese protesters into the streets. Mass protests have been held every night in Valletta at the parliament building, with protesters demanding Mr. Muscat’s ouster and calling him “Mafia.”
Ms. Caruana Galizia’s death has triggered demands for justice across Europe. On Thursday, the European Parliament confirmed it is sending a mission to Malta to try to ensure that justice is served the murder case. In a tweet on Thursday, David Casa, a Maltese European Parliament member, wrote “The world is watching. It is insanity that [Joseph Muscat] thinks his position is still tenable. He has blood on his hands.”
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