Malta’s prime minister was expected to resign last night amid an acute political crisis precipitated by the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Joseph Muscat was on the brink of quitting, according to The Times of Malta, in what would cap a tumultuous week for the EU’s smallest member.
He has been under immense pressure to leave for days, with nightly protests outside parliament in Valletta, the capital.
“Out, out, out,” Paul Caruana Galizia, one of the murdered journalist’s three sons, wrote on Twitter.
Simon Busuttil, a former opposition leader, said that the departure of the prime minister was “both inevitable and imperative for our country to start a desperately needed cleaning up and healing process after six and a half years of lies, corruption and an assassination that killed one of us.”
Roberta Metsola, an MEP with the opposition Nationalist Party, wrote: “If only Daphne was alive to see that even after they assassinated her, she brought the criminals down in disgrace.”
Mrs Caruana Galizia was blown up by a car bomb as she left her home outside Valletta, the capital, two years ago.
She had made many enemies through her widely-read blog, Running Commentary, which documented corruption and sleaze in the political and business worlds.
The protracted investigation into her assassination finally started to bear fruit this week, with several arrests and resignations.
Mr Muscat, from Malta’s Labour Party, presided over a period of strong economic growth and low unemployment.
A former TV anchor, he was elected in 2013, securing the biggest majority in 60 years, and promised a government that would be friendly to business and encouraging to foreign investment.
Blessed with an easy charm, he was described as “a mainstream, youthful, fresh social democrat, the Maltese version of a young Tony Blair” by a new book on the scandal of the journalist’s killing, Murder on the Malta Express. “He was the new kid on the block.”
Bu his standing was irreparably damaged by the murder of the journalist, which shocked the whole of Europe and raised questions about the rule of law in Malta.
The prime minister was one of the targets of Mrs Caruana Galizia’s blog.
She accused his wife of taking bribes from Azerbaijan’s ruling family and hiding them in illegal offshore structures – allegations that were vehemently denied.
In the past few days, three politicians within the prime minister’s inner circle stepped down in connection with the murder investigation, including his chief of staff, Keith Schembri.
Mr Schembri was arrested and questioned by police but released on Thursday night, sparking incredulity and accusations of a cover-up. He denies any wrongdoing and police said they no longer needed him held for their investigation.
"We share Malta’s shock and anger at the release of Keith Schembri, the prime minister’s close personal friend and former chief of staff," Mrs Caruana Galizia’s family said in a statement.
“This travesty of justice is shaming our country, ripping our society apart, and it is degrading us. It cannot continue any longer."
They accused the prime minister of playing "judge, jury, and executioner in an assassination investigation that so far implicates three of his closest colleagues."
Mr Schembri, who denies any wrongdoing, was allegedly implicated in the murder plot by Yorgen Fenech, a wealthy business tycoon who was arrested on his yacht as he tried to leave the island earlier this month.
He has requested a presidential pardon in return for providing information to the authorities, but that was turned down by Muscat’s cabinet at an extraordinary meeting that ended at 3am on Friday.
In a letter to Malta’s president, Fenech’s lawyers said the evidence would implicate senior government figures including Mr Schembri and two cabinet members – Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister, and Chris Cardona, the economy minister, both of whom stepped down this week. All three deny wrongdoing.
Mr Fenech, the businessman, was released on police bail on Friday morning, telling journalists: “I fear for my life.”
Mr Muscat’s expected resignation will set off a leadership race within the governing Labour Party.
The country is expected to have a new prime minister by January.
Three men have been charged with planting and detonating the bomb that killed the journalist, but so far the authorities have failed to track down the person who hired them.
After two years, no trial date has been set yet for the trio of alleged assassins.
In the months before she was murdered, Mrs Caruana Galizia had been writing about a secretive Dubai-based company called 17 Black, which was owned by Mr Fenech.
Leaked emails revealed that payments were due to be made by the offshore company to Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi for unspecified services.
There is no evidence that those payments were made in the end. Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi have denied any wrongdoing.