Anger was growing in Malta on Monday over the prime minister’s decision to delay his resignation until next month, as the scandal over the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia continued to roil the island nation.
Opponents say Joseph Muscat is too compromised to preside over the investigation into the murder of the journalist, who exposed corruption and sleaze in her widely-read blog until she was blown up by a car bomb two years ago.
Mr Muscat announced on national television on Sunday evening that he will step down, succumbing to two weeks of furious protests.
He said he will resign as the leader of the ruling Labour Party on Jan 12 and as prime minister “in the days after”.
Protesters, opposition MPs, civil society groups and the journalist’s family demanded that he step down immediately and vowed to keep up the pressure with demonstrations in the capital, Valletta.
They say 45-year-old Mr Muscat is too closely involved in the murder investigation to remain in office, after three of his close associates – two ministers and his chief of staff – were forced to step aside last week.
Keith Schembri, the chief of staff, was arrested in connection with the murder investigation, but then released.
Police said they had no reason to hold him any longer. He denies any wrongdoing.
“Muscat has delayed his resignation in an attempt to continue protecting himself and Schembri. There is no alternative explanation,” the Caruana Galizia family said in a statement.
“His continued tenure as prime minister is intolerable to anyone who cares about justice. His role into the investigation into our wife and mother’s assassination is unlawful.”
The prime minister has insisted he is acting with impartiality, and that it is under his watch that three men were arrested and charged with detonating the car bomb that killed Mrs Caruana Galizia in October 2017.
He said he had “kept my word” that justice would be done in the investigation.
But one of her three sons, Matthew, pledged that “people will be out in the streets again” in the coming days.
Adrian Delia, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Party, said: “Muscat does not understand the anger of the people. Justice cannot be served with an illegitimate prime minister at the helm.”
The Times of Malta said on Monday that the prime minister’s decision to delay his resignation was “self-serving” and “extraordinarily irresponsible.”
In a powerful editorial, the paper wrote: “Joseph Muscat had a chance to take Malta away from the precipice yesterday. He didn’t grasp it. He is still in place for another month, with the powder keg of a situation getting worse by the day.”
The five weeks until the resignation “give too much time for the prime minister and his cronies to hide any incriminating evidence. Anger is rightly verging on rage among the growing ranks of activists and protesters.”
The prime minister should have resigned immediately in order to “defuse the dangerously rising tensions” in the country, The Times of Malta said.
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“One can only hope and pray that the next few weeks will not witness civil strife as a result of Muscat’s blindness.”
On Saturday prosecutors charged Yorgen Fenech, a 38-year-old millionaire tycoon who was arrested on his yacht, with conspiracy in the assassination, alleging he organised and financed the car bombing.
He denied the allegations in court.
Mr Fenech has been linked to Mr Schembri through alleged business dealings conducted via companies in Dubai and Panama. Mrs Caruana Galizia was investigating those companies in the months before her murder.
Mr Fenech, one of Malta’s richest men, implicated Mr Schembri in the murder plot – an accusation strongly denied by the former chief of staff.