Maltese PM’s chief-of-staff arrested over journalist’s murder

The former chief of staff of Malta’s government was arrested over the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on Wednesday as suspects reportedly began pointing the finger at each other and opposition MPs renewed calls for the prime minister to resign. 

Opposition politicians walked out of parliament in Valletta, saying the Labour government of Joseph Muscat had lost all legitimacy.

They accused Mr Muscat of trying to shield his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, right up until Mr Schembri’s resignation on Tuesday.

Mr Schembri, one of the prime minister’s closest allies, had been chief of staff since 2013.

Mr Schembri resigned after he was reportedly named as a “person of interest” in the investigation by Yorgen Fenech, a multi-millionaire businessman who was arrested last week as he tried to leave Malta on his luxury yacht. Both have denied any wrongdoing. 

Adrian Delia, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Party, said his MPs would no longer engage with a “government that has lost its legitimacy.”

He accused the prime minister of “not having the slightest decency to sack” Mr Schembri.

“Indeed, he thanked someone accused of assassination,” the opposition leader said. Maltese police have not said why Mr Schembri is under arrest or whether he is a suspect in the murder, which shook the former British colony to the core and raised questions in Europe about the rule of law on the island.

It is not just inside parliament that the pressure is building on the prime minister.

Outside parliament, protesters have shouted “mafia” and “murderers” at the prime minister and his ministers, with some throwing eggs, coins and fake bank notes.

In a biting editorial, the Malta Today newspaper said it was time for the prime minister to go.

“Joseph Muscat’s moral authority has been compromised to the point of no return after failing to sack Keith Schembri despite mounting evidence of irregular behaviour before he resigned under duress.

“Murder – political murder – is hanging on the Muscat administration. His administration has been shorn of the moral force that a prime minister needs to keep on governing. The stage is set for Muscat’s exit.”

But the premier refused to countenance resigning, saying the opposition was free to move a vote of no confidence in him if it wished.  

As the investigation deepened, the Maltese press reported that Mr Fenech’s doctor had also been arrested, accused of passing messages from Mr Schembri to Mr Fenech, with the chief of staff imploring the tycoon to keep quiet.

Mr Schembri may even have tipped off Mr Fenech to his imminent arrest, prompting his failed attempt to leave Malta on his yacht, Maltese press reported.

Movements of Yorgen Fenech's yacht

Caruana Galizia, 53, whose well-read blog dished the dirt on politicians of all stripes, was killed by a car bomb as she drove away from her family home two years ago.

Three men are due to go on trial, accused of detonating the bomb, but they are believed by investigators to have been acting under orders.

Melvin Theuma, an alleged middleman in the bombing plot, has been granted an official pardon in return for information that could help the investigation, and Mr Fenech has also reportedly requested a pardon.

That has led to accusations against the prime minister of an acute conflict of interest, because it is his job to decide whether to recommend to the president that pardons be granted.

The three sons and widow of Caruana Galizia demanded an urgent meeting with Peter Grech, the country’s attorney-general, to discuss the reports that Mr Fenech has asked for a pardon.

Mr Schembri was one of three senior figures in the prime minister’s circle to step down on Tuesday. The others were Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister, and Chris Cardona, the economy minister, who has suspended himself pending the conclusion of the investigation.  

Mr Mizzi and Mr Cardona have denied any involvement in Caruana Galizia’s death.   

Referring to Mr Schembri, one of Caruana Galizia’s sons, Andrew, said that “evidence continues to emerge… that the most powerful figure in the Maltese government had a hand in” the murder.

Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi are alleged to have been connected to Mr Fenech through their business dealings, with allegations that they were to receive large payments for undisclosed services from 17 Black, a Dubai-based company owned by Mr Fenech.

An opposition MP issued a public statement, accusing Mr Schembri of being “one of the criminal masterminds” of the murder. “I write this out of my responsibility as a Member of Parliament,” Jason Azzopardi wrote on Facebook.

“Keith Schembri is one of the criminal masterminds in the assassination of Daphne. He paid out money for this.” The MP accused the prime minister of having blood on his hands by “defending Schembri for two years.”

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