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‘Hope was killed last night’ – Caruana Galizia family demands meeting with Prime Minister

Questions raised on the impartiality of members appointed to the Board of Inquiry without consultation with the victim’s family.

The late Daphne Caruana Galizia (centre) with sons Andrew (left) and Paul (right).

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s heirs have requested a meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat after the government announced on Friday the appointment of former Judge Michael Mallia to preside over a public inquiry into the journalist’s assassination.

The government said in a statement on Friday evening that the commission will also be composed of the former Dean of the Faculty of Law, Ian Refalo, and forensic expert Anthony Abela Medici. It was requested to conclude the inquiry within nine months.

The journalist’s family have long been requesting an independent public inquiry into the assassination of the journalist in a car bomb in October 2017, a call taken up by international press freedom organisations and laid out in a report on Malta by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

“A public inquiry chaired by a respected former judge is what all right-minded people have been calling for since our mother’s and wife’s assassination,” the family said following the government’s announcement.

They stressed that given the gravity of its purpose and its mandate to investigate State institutions, justice demanded that the Board’s wider members held no financial or political links to the current political administration. Yet concerns are already been raised.

“The Board will be unfit for purpose if the public has reason to doubt any of its wider members’ independence or impartiality. We ask to meet with the Prime Minister without delay to discuss our concerns in that regard,” the Caruana Galizias said.

Caruana Galizia’s son, Andrew, said on social media that “hope was killed last night” as the fight for an independent and impartial inquiry “must go on”.

The former Judge heading the Board of Inquiry is involved in the criminal investigation into her death when the Prime Minister has insisted the public inquiry should be kept separate (even including it in the terms of reference).

Another member of the Board of Inquiry, Ian Refalo, is an adviser to the Justice Minister and defending the government in a case against a whistleblower.

The third expert appointed, Abela Medici, has long-held political ties with the Labour Party. He was the forensic expert who insisted in October 2017 that the explosive material in the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia was Semtex, implying foreign involvement, even when it was confirmed it was TNT.

‘We will remain vigilant’

The Maltese government’s announcement came only days before the three-month deadline for an independent and impartial public inquiry set by the Council of Europe. This was noted by international press freedom organisations, with Reporters Without Borders saying the establishment of a public inquiry was long overdue, but scrutiny would persist on its independence and impartiality. 

“This is an essential step towards justice for the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. It is the result of the sustained advocacy efforts of her family and civil society groups for nearly two years. But a public inquiry that lacks independence and impartiality will fool no one – and the goal remains full justice for this heinous assassination,” said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.

“We will remain vigilant and scrutinise the composition and actions of the Board of Inquiry, and act to hold the Maltese government to account for its international obligations,” she added.

The inquiry is set to determine whether the State could have acted to prevent Caruana Galizia’s death and whether the State knew, or ought to have known, of a real and immediate risk to her life. It will look into whether criminal provisions are sufficient to protect others at risk.

The Board will report to the Prime Minister, who has been the subject of criticism in several reports by European watchdogs for holding too much power and controlling the operations of independent institutions meant to hold him in check.

While the inquiry is labelled as public, the Board is authorised to hold meetings ‘in camera’ (behind closed doors) at its discretion “to protect confidentiality of information”.

The terms of the inquiry state that the commission will regulate its own procedure; in other words, it will decide on all matters relating to its operation including access given to the victim’s family.

The terms refer to the need for the inquiry to be conducted “in such a way as not to impede or compromise any criminal investigation or prosecution or its integrity”.  Yet the government-appointed Mallia, who’s involved in the criminal investigation into journalist’s assassination, despite the Prime Minister’s insistence, and the reason given for the delay in launching the inquiry, that the two should be kept separate.

Is it really independent and impartial?

It was not long before questions were raised on the impartiality of the members appointed to the Board of Inquiry. European law expert and Senior Lecturer at Aberdeen University, Justin Borg-Barthet, pointed out that Ian Refalo was an advisor to Justice Minister Owen Bonnici on his decision to reject measures in Parliament to protect journalists against financially-crippling SLAPP lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions.

Maltese NGO Repubblika said in a statement on Saturday it was “deeply disturbing” to learn that the family had not been consulted on the composition of the Board of Inquiry. The organisation questioned the impartiality of Board members.

Refalo represents the FIAU (Malta’s anti-money laundering agency), which Caruana Galizia reported on in her investigations. He represents the government in a number of cases, including against a former official at the agency, Jonathan Ferris, who has said he has evidence of corruption at the highest levels of government but denied protection as a whistleblower.

Refalo also represents the former Managing Director of Allied Newspapers, Adrian Hillman, being investigated for kickbacks involving the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri – a case Caruana Galizia revealed. The owner of Technoline, a firm embroiled in the Vitals Global Healthcare scandal involving top government officials, is another client of Refalo’s.

The forensic expert on the Board,  Anthony Abela Medici, was a former political candidate for the Labour Party, together with his father who was a Labour Minister. Abela Medici was the one who insisted in October 2017 that the explosive material used in the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia was Semtex – even when it was confirmed it was TNT. The Semtex claim sustained speculation of foreign involvement.

Abela Medici is also Commissioner for the Voluntary Sector, a position he was granted by the government, raising questions on his impartiality.

“The lack of consultation (with the family) shows that no attempt is being made to ensure that the inquiry is genuinely independent and that it allows for justice to be served and to be seen to be served,” Repubblika said.

The organisation pointed out that the announcement came only a day after the Prime Minister rejected a request by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights for him to drop his defamation cases against Caruana Galizia two years after her death. Muscat said that he would not do so unless the family accepted the findings of a report on his actions – a report the family has not seen because it has been denied access.

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