Malta government carries responsibility for journalist's murder, inquiry finds

·4 min read
People gather at the Great Siege Square calling for the resignation of Joseph Muscat, in Valletta

By Christopher Scicluna

VALLETTA (Reuters) - An independent inquiry into the car bomb murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta found on Thursday that the state had to bear responsibility after creating a "culture of impunity".

Caruana Galizia https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-malta-daphne-idUKKBN2702EX was killed in a massive explosion as she drove out of her home on Oct. 16, 2017.

Prosecutors believe top businessman Yorgen Fenech, who had close ties with senior government officials, masterminded the murder. Fenech, who is awaiting trial for association to murder, denies all responsibility.

Three men suspected of setting off the bomb were arrested in December 2017. One has since pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain and is serving a 15-year jail term. The other two are awaiting trial. The self-confessed middleman has turned state witness and was granted a pardon.

The inquiry, conducted by one serving judge and two retired judges, found that a culture of impunity was created by the highest echelons of power within the government of the time.

"The tentacles of impunity then spread to other regulatory bodies and the police, leading to a collapse in the rule of law," said the panel's report, which was published by Prime Minister Robert Abela.

Abela, who succeeded Joseph Muscat as premier in 2020, told reporters he wanted to apologise to Caruana Galizia's family and all those affected by the state's failures. "The murder was a dark chapter in the history of Malta and it would be a shame if lessons are not learnt," he told a news conference.

The investigative report was another step in the healing process, Abela added, and he summoned parliament for an emergency sitting on Friday morning to discuss it.

The report said the state failed to recognise the real and immediate risks to Caruana Galizia's life and failed to take reasonable steps to avoid them.

Caruana Galizia's family issued a statement saying they hoped its findings would lead to the restoration of the rule of

law in Malta, effective protection for journalists and an end to the impunity that the corrupt officials Daphne

investigated continue to enjoy."

Muscat resigned in January 2020 following Fenech's arrest. He was never accused of any wrongdoing.

Muscat wrote on Facebook on Thursday that the report "unequivocally states that I was in no way implicated in the murder...It is to be noted that the inquiry found that the state had no prior knowledge of or was involved in the assassination."

Media later also revealed close links between Fenech, ministers, and senior police officers.

The judges called in their report for immediate action to rein in and regulate links between politicians and big business.

It was clear, the inquiry board said, that the assassination of Caruana Galizia was either intrinsically or directly linked to her investigative work.

Reuters has published several investigations into the Caruana Galizia murder, including in April 2018 https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/malta-daphne, in November 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-malta-daphne-offshore-exclusive-idUSKCN1NE18M and March this year https://www.reuters.com/article/us-malta-daphne-china-specialreport-idUSKBN2BL1WF.

NOT BINDING

The report's conclusions do not oblige Malta's government to take any action, but the opposition Nationalist Party called on Muscat and Abela to shoulder their responsibilities.

"The state inquiry is clear: Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder was enabled by the collective inaction of Joseph Muscat's cabinet, many of whom still hold public office. Robert Abela must ensure that responsibility for this culture of impunity is shouldered," opposition leader Bernard Grech said in a statement.

In their report, the judges attributed indirect responsibility to Muscat for the circumstances leading to the murder, citing his failure to act against his chief of staff Keith Schembri and former energy minister Konrad Mizzi over their secret companies, revealed in the Panama Papers, and their alleged links to 17 Black, a secret company owned by Fenech.

Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi have not faced any charges linked to Caruana Galizia and have publicly denied involvement. Schembri and Mizzi did not comment on Thursday's report.

The report said decisions by Muscat had strengthened the culture of impunity in which people whom the assassinated journalist wrote about operated.

Repubblika, a rule-of law group that held daily public protests in the run-up to Muscat's resignation, called another protest outside the prime minister's office for Friday evening.

It said the state should offer compensation to the Caruana Galizia family and the government should conduct a reform that excludes from public office every person responsible for shortcomings outlined in the inquiry.

Abela said on Thursday he did not rule out the possibility of compensation to the family.

The inquiry heard evidence from the police, government officials, the Caruana Galizia family and journalists, among others.

(Editing by Gavin Jones, Frances Kerry and Mark Heinrich)

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