This piece is from 1843, our sister magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture.
MORE THAN two years have now passed since the October afternoon when Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s most dogged and widely read journalist, was assassinated near her home in the slumbering village of Bidnija in the north of the island. And still the residents can’t believe it. “You expect something like this to happen over there,” a retiree named Sabrina Vassallo tells me from her garden, gesturing towards Sicily. “But not here.”
More than two years have passed since Bidnija’s residents have spotted Caruana Galizia driving through their village or attending the annual festival at the chapel of the Sagra Familja. And yet, for maybe the first time since that day, the question of who commissioned her killing no longer appears so inscrutable. At the end of November, Yorgen Fenech (pictured below), a businessman, was charged with conspiring in her murder. This precipitated the resignation of a government minister and the prime minister’s chief of staff. (All three have denied involvement in Caruana Galizia’s death) “We had our doubts when it happened,” Antony Galea, a strawberry farmer, tells me as he rolls a muddy tractor off a pickup truck. “But you saw what these people were doing in Panama, right? You think they couldn’t have also done this?”
The smallest country in the European Union (EU) is now engulfed in the biggest crisis in its independent history. During the six days I spent on the island at the beginning of December, news came of the resignation of Finland’s prime minister over a dispute involving that country’s postal service. A deputy minister in Greece stepped down after getting caught inventing a degree on his CV. In Kosovo, an MP was sentenced to two years in jail for hate speech.
But on Malta – a state that continues to portray itself as a European success story – the island’s most powerful man still clings to his seat in the stout Crusader bastion known as Castille. Joseph Muscat (pictured below), the prime minister, has promised to stand down in the middle of January. But for the moment he remains in office, despite the increasing number of extraordinary allegations.
The Maltese have been told, in testimony to the courts and leaks to the press, that in June 2017, Fenech paid Marvin Theuma, a taxi driver, €150,000 ($166, 240) to hire three men to plant and detonate the car bomb that killed the journalist. They have been told that these assassins – arrested in December 2017 – were continually leaked details about the police investigation. They have been told that the person leaking those details was Keith Schembri, Muscat’s chief of staff, whom Caruana Galizia slammed as “that crook” on Running Commentary, her widely read blog, less than an hour before she was murdered. (Fenech and Schembri deny the allegations.)
They have been told that Fenech, the alleged mastermind, helped Schembri and other members of the government create plans to funnel money into offshore Panamanian accounts. They have been told that Muscat himself was in regular communication with Fenech after Caruana Galizia’s assassination and that, for months, at least one person alleged to be privy to the assassination plot was allowed to sit in on police and secret-service meetings about the arrest of those privy to the assassination plot. (Muscat says that his actions were authorised by the secret service, so as not to tip off Fenech that he was under investigation.) They have been told that the middleman between the assassins and the Maltese state may have been a member of Muscat’s own security detail and that Theuma was given a phantom government job, raising concerns that Maltese taxpayer euros may have been used to fund the cover-up. Muscat has denied any prior knowledge of the plot.
Hours after Muscat announced he was stepping down, the European Parliament scrambled a mission to Valletta. “This swamp of corruption and financial crime must now be brought to justice,” Sven Giegold, a German delegate, declared before leaving Brussels. Muscat, he said, needed to step down immediately. But in Malta the mission did not encounter the boyish technocrat once slated to replace Donald Tusk as president of the EU Council in Brussels, but a different man entirely: an uncompromising prime minister whose story, Giegold conceded, no longer added up. Many on Malta contend that Muscat has refused to step down immediately because of this accumulating evidence against his government. They believe his final weeks in power will be used to exonerate his closest advisers and possibly even himself. (Muscat has argued that the management of government business requires him to stay in office for the next month.)
In Valletta, tens of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets. They congregate in front of the parliament, which police, summoned from across the island, have blocked off with steel barriers. As Labour ministers exit the building, the crowd hisses and cusses and throws eggs. A big speaker blares out “Vaffanculo”, the rowdy Marco Masini ballad, and they sing along en masse: “Vaffanculo! Fuck you!” They carpet the ground with green €5,000 bills depicting Muscat and his ministers and the flags of Panama and Azerbaijan (they believe that Malta’s wealth has been siphoned off to these countries.) “Their attempts to end corruption are as fake as these €5,000”, reads the motto on the notes. “NO MORE POWER CUNTS” proclaims a sign in yellow caps – a reference to a three-hour power outage that mysteriously struck Malta as crucial details of the murder plot became public. Other signs read “Quo Vadis Malta?” and “Killers in the Castille”. Small skirmishes break out with police. “Think what you’re doing right now. You’re defending them?” a protester implores an officer, who looks back with some mixture of bewilderment and shame.
But the Maltese haven’t always rushed to Caruana Galizia’s defence. On my first visit to Malta two years ago, three months after the journalist’s assassination, the monthly vigils commemorating her death were sparsely attended, sombre affairs. Most of those who turned up were family members or super-fans of her blog. “They knew who we were,” one of the few MPs who attended those vigils told me. He suspected that the protests were being closely watched. “When we walked down the streets – well, it was not uncommon to get spat on.” For most Maltese citizens, there was a risk in being spotted at such a gathering. An election a few months earlier had delivered Labour a great victory, despite three years of rule during which Caruana Galizia had made serious allegations of grift by party leaders.
Many Maltese, even if they privately agreed with Caruana Galizia’s assessment, desisted from commemorating her. It meant publicly endorsing her claim that Malta was ruled by a mafia clan disguised as a political party. Threats to her supporters were explicit. Photographs of vigil attendees were regularly posted online and their names made public. Public sector employees were ordered to clear away the makeshift memorial to Caruana Galizia every morning. Allegations were spread that one of her sons had played a part in his mother’s murder. Acts of protests had to be surreptitious. Driving around the island in early 2018, I spotted great red banners that counted the number of days that had passed since Caruana Galizia’s murder had gone unsolved – a stunt inspired by “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a recent film.
But over the last two years, public opinion has shifted. For Caruana Galizia’s most damning allegations have proved to be chillingly precise. She alleged that Labour was running a self-enrichment racket by selling Maltese citizenship to dubious foreign nationals; this January, the European Commission ordered a thorough review of the practice, which it claimed was opening up the EU to organised crime. Caruana Galizia had alleged that Pilatus, a bank licensed under the Labour government, was an Iranian money-laundering front; in March 2018, the FBI arrested its founder in Manhattan and charged him with sanctions-busting and money-laundering. And in November, Reuters published the results of an investigation on which they had spent hundreds of thousands of euros. It proved a hunch that Caruana Galizia, armed with little more than her own contacts and determination, had been pursuing in the months before she was killed: that Fenech owned a company in Dubai which was intended to be used to transfer money to Panamanian companies that benefited Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, Muscat’s minister of tourism. (No money ended up being transferred and Mizzi, for one, denies any involvement in the scheme.) In recent weeks the pace of revelations has only speeded up.
On a wind-swept morning in Valletta last week, as I was waiting for the court to begin its daily session, British pensioners disgorge from cruise liners and ambled down Republic Street. Christmas carols jingled from rooftop public speakers in an apparent act of state-enforced holiday cheer. (The Caruana Galizia protests have been bad for business, with some shops in the capital claiming a 50% drop in sales.) Talk of the trial has now become the ambient noise of the island. Even the tourists have devised theories on the matter. “How are all these accused men paying their lawyers?” a retired Scottish archaeologist asked me on a bus, as he whipped a ruffled Times of Malta out of his bag. “You would think that the first thing that would happen would be to freeze their bank accounts.” I met a lawyer who is now living part-time out of her car, which she has packed with flat shoes that she wears for marching and posters for hoisting at the nightly protests. She is not the first person to tell me that “fighting for Daphne” has become a second job in the past month.
Late in the morning a fleet of police cars streamed down a cobbled alley, followed by a pair of prison buses. “More arrests? Who’d they manage to nab today?” a woman asks aloud to no one in particular. Four of the prisoners shuffled through the court to Hall 7, a wood-panelled chamber with a ceiling of egg-yolk yellow. An icon of Jesus hung above the magistrate’s head. The entrance was guarded by three officers carrying enormous rifles. Shortly after 10.30am, the three men accused of being directly responsible for planting and detonating the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia entered the chamber. Each of them wore a suit; one had Aviators on. Theuma – the tall, clean-cut taxi driver allegedly ordered by Fenech to hire assassins – followed. Theuma was arrested in November, but his role in the plot has been known since at least April 2018. It remains unclear why it took 18 months to apprehend him, but days after he was seized, he was offered a presidential pardon to deliver up all the information he possessed on the plot to kill Caruana Galizia.
Theuma is delivering the goods. When I saw him, he spoke in unhurried sentences, as though unaware of the magnitude of his testimony. Over the course of a three-hour examination by the grey-robed magistrate, he told the court a remarkable story. He explained that, for more than a year, Schembri had been in regular contact with members of the assassination plot – several of whom were provided with tens of thousands of euros to pay their legal fees. He said that members of the assassination plot originally balked at the idea of a car bomb, as there were concerns that Caruana Galizia might survive such a blast. In the months after the assassination, he became paranoid that he would also get whacked; those who hired him seemed to be aware that he knew too much. The courtroom clattered with the tapping of keyboards – at least a dozen journalists had been crammed onto the benches that run around the side of the chamber. Eventually the room filled up and the magistrate ordered the doors to be locked. Within minutes everyone began to swelter.
Theuma’s most extraordinary claim reaches right to the top. In March 2017, more than a year before elections were due, Muscat called a snap poll. At the time, Caruana Galizia was incredulous. “I’m still asking this question repeatedly myself,” she wrote. Why was an election being held then? The prime minister’s popularity seemed as high as it ever had been. What was he “so afraid of”, she asked, that he would risk shaving a year off his tenure in power?
Theuma stated in his testimony that the plan to kill Caruana Galizia was originally conceived in early spring in 2017. But he implied that it was placed on hold so that Labour could wage an election campaign unburdened by the scandal of a dead journalist. Theuma claims that on June 3rd 2017, the very day Muscat won his resounding victory, he received an order to resume the plot. If Theuma’s allegations are true, it appears the election may in some way have served as a referendum on Caruana Galizia’s life. (Muscat continues to deny any connection to the case).
Hall 7 offers its own testimony to the entanglements of this small island. Caruana Galizia’s sons sat an arm’s length from their mother’s alleged killers. Intermittently, the accused were allowed to exit the court for cigarette breaks. When Fenech made his first court appearance, pedestrians were astonished to spot him meandering around Republic Street, smoking nonchalantly in full view of the makeshift shrine to the woman he stands accused of murdering.
Amid all the uncertainties on Malta today, one thing seems clear. Caruana Galizia’s murder ripped a gaping tear in the island’s image of itself. A country that was once Europe’s bridge to Africa and the Middle East has now become a pariah.
Alexander Clapp is a journalist based in Athens