Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 29 January 2020

Daphne Caruana Galizia investigation: Malta businessman charged with complicity in murder

Yorgen Fenech, one of the Mediterranean island’s wealthiest tycoons, pleaded not guilty to five charges

Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech, who was taken into custody by police last week as he was trying to flee the island, leaves court after being questioned in the 2017 bomb blast that killed investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as she drove near her home, in Valletta, Malta, Friday, November 29, 2019. AP Photo
Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech, who was taken into custody by police last week as he was trying to flee the island, leaves court after being questioned in the 2017 bomb blast that killed investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as she drove near her home, in Valletta, Malta, Friday, November 29, 2019. AP Photo

As Malta’s prime minister hangs on to his post, a prominent local businessman has been charged with complicity in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017.

Yorgen Fenech, one of the Mediterranean island’s wealthiest tycoons, pleaded not guilty to that charge, He appeared in a Valetta court accused along with four others of charges that include membership of a criminal gang.

Mr Fenech, whose business interests span the transport and property sectors, was arrested on November 20 when he was abroad a yacht trying to leave Malta.

He had previously tried to request for legal immunity in connection with the reporter’s killing. But his request was denied by Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his cabinet.

Three more people are awaiting trial for the murder of the journalist, who wrote stories exposing government corruption, nepotism and allegations of money laundering.

As the investigation into the murder intensifies, hundreds of protesters in Malta have taken to the streets to protest against the government, who they accuse of being politically corrupt and covering up the investigation into Galizia’s murder.

The scrutiny and the unrest has led to three senior ministers resigning. Mr Muscat’s chief aide, Keith Schembri, quit this week amid reports he was being questioned by police, while Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi also quit. Economy Minister Chris Cardona decided to suspend himself.

Opposition politicians have also criticised Mr Muscat for allowing two government officials accused of being financially connected to Mr Fentech to stay in their roles, and have called him to resign.

Mr Fenech co-owns a business that won the backing of the government in 2013 to build a gas power station.

Mr Muscat convened an emergency meeting on Sunday as pressure mounted for him to quit as well over his handling of the murder probe.

Critics have accused the Labour leader of protecting those involved in Galizia's murder.

Police sources said Mr Fenech identified Mr Schembri as the "real mastermind" behind the killing.

Mr Muscat's departure date was likely to be the focus of Sunday's emergency meeting of ministers and MPs, a senior Labour source said.

"The prime minister has said from the outset that he will leave no stone unturned to solve this despicable murder under his watch and he delivered exactly that with the arraignment of someone who is believed to have commissioned the murder," the source said.

"His exit has been on the cards for a while and he feels that now is the best time to bow out and allow fresh blood to take up on the extremely positive results delivered by Joseph Muscat in the six years at the helm."

On Saturday, party insiders said that Mr Muscat would step down at the latest on January 18 when the Labour Party is set to hold an election for his successor.

However, he repeatedly insisted he would remain in power until the case was "closed".

Galizia was a popular journalist and blogger described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks."

She accused Mr Schembri of corruption along with Mr Mizzi and Mr Cardona.

Leaked emails revealed in court indicated that both Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi stood to receive payments from a company called 17 Black, owned by Mr Fenech.

His detention came after an alleged middleman in the murder, taxi driver Melvin Theuma, was offered a pardon to identify others who were involved.

Mr Schembri, Mr Muscat's former chief of staff, was arrested on Tuesday but his release on Thursday sparked accusations of a cover-up.

Anti-government protesters were set to hold fresh rallies outside the parliament in Valletta on Sunday.

A Maltese court is expected to rule on Monday over a request by Mr Fenech for the chief investigator in the case, Keith Arnaud, to be removed amid allegations he also had close ties to Mr Schembri and the prime minister.

Updated: December 1, 2019 04:40 PM

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