2019 has been the year for revolutions. A revolution happens when common folk have had enough and are urged to take to the streets. Iran, Iraq, Hong Kong, and now the smallest EU country of Malta. No guillotines, and no kings, but revolutions just the same. Malta’s current revolution is residual of an assassination that took place in October 2017. The aggressive investigative Maltese reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was literally blown out of her existence when a bomb was placed under her car seat outside her home in Bidnija, Malta. She was silenced forever, or so the assassins thought.
Daphne had for a long time opined and firmly believed that the current Labor government, to include the Prime Minister, his Chief of Staff, and Tourism Minister, were allegedly involved in illegal financial activities. She hammered this home at every chance she got through a blog on a local newspaper. Her scathing accusations brought her fame and notoriety but also made her enemies. She had a target on her back. When the Panama Papers leak broke in 2016, she discovered and tied the Chief of Staff and the Tourism Minister to off shore shell companies bought through the now defunct Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The Panama Paper trail led to financial criminal activity that included tax evasion, bribery, money laundering, and kickbacks. What started as an investigation into a €400 million power station contracted to various companies by the Labor government, ended in a web of Cartel-like financial illegal activity that involved local and foreign businesses, governments, and top Labor government officials. Kickbacks and cash were moved back and forth through the shell companies and third parties. It did not take Daphne long to connect all the dots and make all the sordid details public; sparing no one and naming names.
The trail of corruption led her straight to the Prime Minister’s door. His determination to stand by those close to him, especially his Chief of Staff was eventually viewed as a betrayal to the country. As more illegal dirt was dug up, the mud seemed to always stick to the face of Chief of Staff, Mr. Keith Schembri. Daphne’s finger pointed directly at him and also at the Prime Minister Dr. Joseph Muscat, by association. Daphne also investigated the Prime Minister’s wife Mrs. Muscat, when she was able to directly link Mrs. Muscat to one of the investment companies in the new power station, and which was also directly related to the Azerbaijan government. This was beyond conflict of interest, and it gave Daphne another reason to directly demand answers from the Prime Minister. He refused and called her “persecution” partisan. But Daphne was not one to either let up or be intimidated. She and her family were subject to threats and their home was vandalized many times. She was used to bullying.
Daphne’s assassination was heard across the globe with journalists all over the world condemning it. But the tongue-in-cheek condemnation by the Prime Minister was regarded as hollow and insulting. The EU reprimanded the Prime Minister during an EU conference but that did not move him to either distance himself from the investigation or sacking his top two ministers in his cabinet. It took two years for the investigation to go somewhere. Although three culprits were immediately apprehended and charged, the country knew that somewhere a puppet master planned and paid the three assassins to carry out the murder. Allegedly, Europol and the FBI were asked for assistance in the investigation.
The investigation came to an unexpected head a few weeks ago when business man Yorgen Fenech was apprehended fleeing the country in his yacht. He became a person of interest overnight when a K9 apprehended another individual trying to carry out €120,000 in cash out of the country. He was the middleman in the assassination, and it took very little time for him to sing and point fingers. Mr. Fenech was the CEO of Tumas Group, another entity in the now infamous power station investment scheme. Mr. Fenech sang even louder than the middleman Mr. Theuma, when he named the Chief of Staff, Mr. Schembri as the mastermind behind the murder of Daphne. At this point Mr. Fenech would have sold his own mother for a pardon and a ticket out of jail. And that is when the revolution started in Malta.
Daphne’s family, led by her journalist son Matthew, never gave up trying to get to the truth. They were bent on holding the Prime Minister and his close circle responsible for his mother’s murder. Immediately after Mr. Fenech’s confession, the people took to the streets demanding the removal of the Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister. The Tourism Minister resigned, and the Chief of Staff was temporarily under arrest, interrogated, but then set free “without enough evidence”. The Chief of Police was duly named co-conspirator in the cover up. (The Prime Minister is in control of the local law enforcement.) The lack of check and balances became very apparent and disconcerting. As Mr. Fenech sang for his pardon, he disclosed that Mr. Schembri sent messages through the Tumas Group physician who was also in on the plot. If you are confused, stick around, it seems to unfold in installments akin to a Mexican novella.
The Prime Minister under pressure from the EU, the foreign media, and to appease the people, announced his “resignation”, but not yet; in January. The people were not amused. Every day, hoards of protestors have been hounding the Prime Minister and his cabinet in an effort to get him to step down immediately, especially, since he reinstated his Tourism Minister, and never condemned the Chief of Staff. His “story” is that he wants to end the investigation on his watch. How magnanimous of him! The people and Daphne’s family have another theory: he wants time to remove evidence that implicates him of obstruction of justice.
In the meantime, the opposition party, the Nationalists, are boycotting Parliament until the Prime Minister steps down. A few days ago as he entered parliament they stormed out in protest while throwing fake Euro bills at him and chanting “Mafia”. The local law enforcement have also been accused of engaging in offhand intimidation by taking pictures of protestors in direct violation of the EU confidentiality laws. They also erected barricades that closed down the immediate area accessible to Parliament to deter protests. But nothing seems to be deterring the crowd from gathering and demanding justice.
The EU is trying to contain the growing tension by stepping in and sending a delegation to interview the protagonists in this saga of crime, corruption, and murder. They don’t want to seem condoning political corruption. Businesses in the capital Valletta, are suffering because of the unrest, while academia from the prestigious University of Malta, have stood behind the protests and demanded the Prime Minister to step down, citing lack of trust and betrayal of the Maltese people and the constitution. But not everyone is of the same thought.
In the weekend, a Labor Party protest in support of the Prime Minister did not go well, when partisan thugs threw bottles at journalists. The truth is that Malta was the most economically sound member of the EU with the lowest unemployment and with the most wealth. Wealth derived from the government’s sale of EU passports (some to the tune of €600,000), off shore gambling, off shore banking, and an alleged lucrative tax evasion and money laundry haven for those seeking protection from their governments; hence the passport scheme. The EU was aware of these indiscretions but apart from a slap on the hand, did not do much. Certain Maltese individuals and companies made millions on real estate development and government contracts. Often, land would be purchased on the sly without the local population realizing what was going on until a high rise finds itself next door. The bubble was getting bigger and bigger as more money was creeping into a country that seemed to turn a blind eye to the obvious.
I was born in Malta shortly after WWII, when the small island was still recuperating from incessant bombings, starvation, and deprivation. Under British rule, it was regarded as a fortress with little resource but its great position in the Mediterranean, a natural grand harbor envied by most navies, and a work force that worked hard and often paid very little. The eventual morphing from a colony to an independent republic was painful and often full of strife. In the 70’s, the Labor government lead by Dom Mintoff took the country toward socialism borderline communism. The people fought for rights in the streets and eventually at the ballot box and kicked Labor out. Prosperity and prestige returned with a boost of confidence given by President Bush Sr when in 1989 he decided to hold the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Malta. Eventually, tourism kicked in with a vengeance, and Malta once again returned to being the pseudo island of my youth. Until now.
As I watch from afar, I realize that my country of birth is embroiled in corruption we often relate to South America or some obscure third world country. Never in my life time would I have guessed that a minister would plan and abet an assassination. It pains me to see what is happening to the beautiful island of my childhood. The island of the George Cross; an honor normally given to individuals but deemed appropriate by the King of England to give to a country. The George Cross represented the bravery, integrity, assertiveness, and courage of the Maltese people as they defended Malta against the enemy. An enemy who had taken over all surrounding countries but unable to bring the island to its knees.
The George Cross still flies honorably on the corner of the red and white Maltese flag. Malta with its 365 Catholic churches should be representing the best of us. There is no place for corruption, crime, or public assassinations. With pain and pride I stand beside my fellow Maltese and shout in protest and indignation: if you truly want the best for your people; Mr. Prime Minister step down. Now is not soon enough.