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Top Malta resignations linked to scandal over journalist murder probe

Two government ministers and the prime minister’s chief of staff have resigned two years after the death of anti-corruption reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Protesters hold Daphne Caruana Galizia signs in Malta

Malta’s government has been rocked by top level resignations two years after the death of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, stood down amid reports he’d been questioned by police in connection to the car-bomb murder probe.

Schembri’s sudden departure was swiftly followed by the exit of  Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi.

Facing questions from reporters, under-pressure Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he did not intend to step down at this stage.

But Muscat reportedly added: “I would definitely resign if there is any sort of association between myself and the murder.”

In a further shock, Economy Minister Chris Cardona said that he was “suspending himself with immediate effect” pending the investigations.

Press reports stated that Schembri had been taken to police headquarters for questioning in relation to the case.

Police were seen entering one of his properties on Tuesday, too, according to local news reports.

Separately, Mizzi announced his resignation following a cabinet meeting.

Schembri and Mizzi were both caught up in the aftermath to ICIJ’s 2016 Panama Papers investigation, and follow-up reporting by Caruana Galizia.

The pair had been accused by Caruana Galizia of graft tied to secret Panama shell companies.

All along, they have denied any criminal wrongdoing.

Mizzi said that he was resigning “in light of political, extraordinary and general circumstances in the country.”

He added, “I have done nothing wrong from a criminal point of view.”

Last week, wealthy Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested on a yacht by Malta’s armed forces in connection Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Schembri’s resignation followed reports on Monday night that Fenech was preparing to make allegations against him.

Following the businessman’s arrest, protesters gathered outside the Maltese parliament in Valletta to demand Muscat’s resignation.

When announcing Schembri’s resignation, the Prime Minister was asked by reporters if he’d consider stepping down, too.

Muscat replied: “I have always said I don’t intend seeking re-election. I don’t intend to serve more than two terms.

“My role right now is to make sure that we navigate through this turbulent time in the best possible manner.

“Once this chapter is closed with the arraignment of person or persons on this case I will make my consideration.”

Cardona said he had absolutely no connection with the Caruana Galizia case.

He said that he had felt “duty bound” to step aside after police had sought further clarifications.

Fenech, based on the reporting by Caruana Galizia and others building upon the 2016 Panama Papers leak, was identified as the owner of 17 Black Ltd.

The secretive Dubai-registered company reportedly received millions of dollars from an Azerbaijani national.

And it was this company that was allegedly due to make large deposits to Panama shell companies owned by Schembri and Mizzi.

The Caruana inquiry has reportedly grown more focussed since a suspected middleman, Melvin Theuma, was given immunity.

Muscat told parliament that Theuma had escaped the threat of prosecution in return for providing information about the killing.

Fenech has reportedly also sought a pardon in return for providing information about Caruana Galizia’s slaying.

Caruana Galizia, a fierce critic of Malta’s political establishment, was killed as she left home on October 16, 2017.

Her murder shocked Europe and galvanized calls for far stronger anti-corruption measures on the Mediterranean island.

Two brothers and a third man are awaiting trial, accused of detonating the bomb. They maintain they’re innocent.

Earlier this year, the Council of Europe criticized Muscat’s inaction in relation to claims made about power station concessions to Azerbaijan figures.

Correction, Nov. 26, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated the Tourism Minister’s name. His name is Konrad Mizzi.