The daughters of disgraced former EU Commissioner John Dalli, a former canvasser of Minister Evarist Bartolo and a known fuel smuggler were charged within two weeks of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Problem is, the police were sitting on some of these charges for years. Why now?
Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar is not known for his trail-blazing, or even snail-paced, record in solving crime. Despite his reputation, or perhaps because of it, he was the one picked by the government for the role.
His claim to fame is the moment he was intercepted on his way to a rabbit restaurant in April while the owner of Pilatus Bank – Seyed Ali Sadr Hasheminejad- was caught on camera leaving the building (and the country) with bulging suitcases hours after Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported that the third mysterious owner of Panama company Egrant was the Prime Minister’s wife Michelle Muscat.
For more than a year, the Police Commissioner has refused to investigate the facts that emerged in the Panama Papers, a leak of more than 11 million documents that linked government officials – including the Prime Minister’s own Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri, and Minister Konrad Mizzi – to offshore shell companies.
Now, within two weeks of Caruana Galizia’s assassination, the police moved several other long-standing allegations before the courts. Eyebrows were raised when charges were filed on 2 November against six people, including Dalli’s daughters, on a $600,000-dollar Ponzi scheme which saw elderly American investors lose their money. Sources familiar with the investigation told The Times of Malta that the police had been sitting on the charges for almost two years. Caruana Galizia had first written about the scheme in 2015.
In the same week, the police filed bribery charges against former Education Ministry official Edward Caruana, who also spent years working as a canvasser for Education Minister Evarist Bartolo. The accusations date back to the summer of 2016, when Caruana allegedly demanded money from contractors in exchange for speeding up payments owed to them by the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools. The development of his block of flats in Rabat continued while the police sat on evidence of six-figure fraud.
The case that caught most international media attention, and the one that raised most suspicions in Malta, was the arrest of fuel smuggler Darren Debono. The reason is that his name is familiar in Maltese circles and his political affiliations known to many newsrooms. This criminal activity had been going on for years and Debono’s name was whispered in connection to it. No case by the police meant, however, that there was no story. It was the Guardia Civile who arrested him, and sources confirmed that this happened despite the lack of co-operation from the Malta police.
When the Italian media reported his arrest a few days after Caruana Galizia’s assassination, the news was immediately picked up by the government-controlled media house TVM. It was a time when the island was packed with international press crews looking into the murder. Within hours, many local journalists and commentators had been briefed that this was the most plausible line of inquiry and that is what they told the international press. The result was a diversion of discourse from ‘a collapse of the rule of law’ to ‘criminal gangs.’
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne defended the Police Commissioner amid calls for his resignation, saying that he must be allowed to do his job. Yet, when faced with continued inaction on the Panama Papers revelations, the public can have no faith that Cutajar is working to protect the public interest. Which is why news of the police pressing charges on cases they had been sitting on for years was taken with a pinch of salt.
Perhaps, the police and the government wanted to impress European Parliament President Antonio Tajani who was arriving in Malta for the slain journalist’s funeral. Perhaps these cases became a needless headache in all this mess, and they were then dropped like hot cakes because the proverbial shit hit the fan.
Could the arraignment of Dalli’s daughters be the real reason the FBI were here? Did the Prime Minister drop the agency’s name in the thick of it to create the impression that “no stone would be left unturned” when, in reality, the investigators were here for completely different reasons?
Whether the blame for Caruana Galizia’s assassination falls on drug lords, fuel smugglers, the Panama Papers revelations or the corrupt governments that Malta has become increasingly cosy with over the last four and a half years, the point is that this is the climate that enabled her death on 16 October 2017. The fact is that there is a crisis in the country and it is called the collapse of the rule of law.
As Caruana Galizia’s family said, “a culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish.” Evidence of this continued to haunt a country shocked by her assassination. The Labour Party’s internet trolls, which include MPs, took to social media to insult, intimidate and harass other individuals. On the day of Caruana Galizia’s funeral they were out in full force.
Their acts may serve to strengthen the resolve of those who feel that Caruana Galizia’s death was a turning point. Truth is, the Labour government has been in a state of near-disarray since Daphne lifted the lid on the Panama Papers. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat held snap elections in June to solidify his four-year hold on power.
His party’s victory was meant to send a message: this is the new normal. Yet, Caruana Galizia’s death has served as a wake-up call to tens of thousands of people who may well ensure that will not be permissible.