Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat came under intense pressure Wednesday to resign as protests against his government and its possible links to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia intensified and his former chief of staff was questioned about her death.
For the fourth time this week, masses of protesters gathered outside the parliament in Valletta, Malta’s capital, to demand that Mr. Muscat follow the two ministers who left their cabinet posts as the scandal widened. As lawmakers entered the building, the protesters shouted “Mafia, Mafia” and waved placards bearing Ms. Caruana Galizia’s image.
Miriam Abdilla, a former school teacher, said the protesters represented civil society and did not take a political position. “All we’re saying is that we have had enough of corruption,” she said. “Daphne revealed everything more than two years ago and nothing has changed, nothing was done.”
Ms. Caruana Galizia devoted her career to exposing corruption in Malta.
The resignations plunged Malta into its deepest political crisis since the country, a former British colony, declared itself a republic in 1971. Ms. Caruana Galizia’s death and the lurid accusations of corruption and cover-up reverberated across Europe and triggered pleas from foreign politicians and press-freedom and civil society groups for quick justice, which has not been delivered.
Wednesday’s protests came after Keith Schembri, the businessman who was Mr. Muscat’s chief of staff until he quit on Monday evening, spent the night in police custody. Local media said that Mr. Schembri was questioned about allegations made by Yorgen Fenech, a prominent Maltese entrepreneur who was arrested on Nov. 20 aboard his luxury yacht as it was attempting to leave Malta’s waters.
Mr. Fenech is under suspicion for involvement in the journalist’s murder. He reportedly has provided evidence that may have implicated Mr. Schembri in the hope of receiving a presidential pardon. The family of Ms. Caruana Galizia opposes any pardon and has requested a meeting with the attorney-general to try to persuade him to drop the idea.
Ms. Caruana Galizia was killed in a car explosion in October, 2017, as she was leaving her home in rural Malta, a tiny European Union island state that lies between Sicily and Tunisia. She was 53 and had three sons.
Her recent work included evidence gleaned from the Panama Papers that Mr. Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister, were the beneficiaries of secret offshore companies. Before her murder, she linked Mr. Mizzi and Mr. Schembri to payments made by Mr. Fenech through a company called 17 Black. She alleged the company was owned by Mr. Fenech. Last year, an investigation by the Reuters news agency came to the same conclusion.
Her popular and hard-hitting blog, titled Running Commentary, made her the most powerful and feared journalist in the country.
Mr. Mizzi resigned early this week. At the same time, economy minister Chris Cardona “suspended himself,” according to a government statement.
Mr. Mizzi, Mr. Cardona and Mr. Schembri all deny any involvement in Ms. Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
The apparent foot-dragging on the murder probe put Mr. Muscat, the Labour Party Leader who has been Prime Minister since 2013, on the defensive as he fights for his political life.
“He has to resign,” Chris Briffa, a retired technology company director, said at Wednesday night’s rally. “Daphne unearthed scandals that no one knew existed and now the government is unravelling.”
Mr. Muscat’s allies are starting to turn on him. On Wednesday, Malta Today, an influential newspaper whose co-owner is close to the Prime Minister, demanded his resignation. “Joseph Muscat’s moral authority has been compromised to the point of no return,” the paper’s editor said in a blistering editorial. “The stage is set for Muscat’s exit.”
Three men – Alfred Degiorgio; his brother, George; and Vincent Muscat (no relation to the Prime Minister) – were arrested two months after Ms. Caruana Galizia’s death. They were charged with murder, criminal conspiracy and use of explosives; they are currently awaiting trial. Police want to know who ordered the assassination.
A taxi driver and alleged small-town thug named Melvin Theuma – widely described in the Maltese media as the “middleman” in the murder – was arrested on Nov. 14 in a separate money-laundering case. He offered information on the journalist’s death in exchange for a pardon granted by Maltese President George Vella. Mr. Schembri was arrested less than two weeks later.
If the reporter’s killers thought the assassination would eliminate the spotlight on their criminal activities, they were wrong. Ms. Caruana Galizia’s three sons – Matthew, Paul and Andrew – and her sister, Corinne, pursued the case relentlessly, calling for Mr. Schembri to face prosecution and demanding that the Prime Minister speed up the probe.
The European Commission and the European Parliament put pressure on Mr. Muscat to get to the bottom of the case. Forbidden Stories, a Paris group that continues the work of journalists silenced by murder or imprisonment, launched the Daphne Project, which saw various media publish investigative pieces based on her reporting.
Some protesters said they were discouraged that Mr. Muscat has yet to bow to public pressure and resign. They noted that, last year, Robert Fico resigned as Slovakia’s prime minister after only a few weeks of political turmoil triggered by the murder of Jan Kuciak, a journalist who was investigating the Italian Mafia’s Slovakian connections.
More mass protests against Mr. Muscat’s government are planned for the weekend.
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