The Opposition and civil society organisations have called for the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri to be dismissed as he was accused of abusing defamation laws after he dropped his libel suit against former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil on 17 Black.
Schembri dropped the case from the witness stand in court today. Doing so allowed him to avoid being cross-examined about Dubai company 17 Black, linked to corruption in the Electrogas deal. He had filed the case against Busuttil following comments that he had received kickbacks on the controversial Electrogas deal in 2016.
Opposition Leader Adrian Delia called for the dismissal of Schembri noting that he has “done everything not to respond to questions in the libel case that he himself opened”. He added that “Schembri chose not to respond in order not to incriminate himself” and demanded that he “must either resign or be removed immediately from the position of Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister”.
Busuttil said that Schembri’s actions were nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid answering questions on 17 Black and other alleged links to corruption.
He had previously stated that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was responsible for the scandal as he allowed Schembri to retain his position, despite planning to receive kickbacks of €5,000 a day from businessman Yorgen Fenech. “He kept them in office and gave them impunity,” Busuttil said.
The family of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia also reacted to the news, posting her last story on the day she was killed in which she called Schembri a “crook”.
— Corinne Vella (@Corinne_Vella) November 11, 2019
Assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported on the libel case in her last post, published minutes before she was killed in a car bomb that was planted underneath her car.
She had written “that crook Keith Schembri was in court claiming he was not corrupt, despite moving to set up a secret company in Panama along with favourite minister Konrad Mizzi and Mr Egrant just days after Labour won the general election in 2013, sheltering it in a top-secret Trust in New Zealand, then hunting around the world for a shady bank that would take them as clients.”
Justin Borg Barthet, a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen law department, made the point on social media that the case showed the rampant abuse of defamation law in an EU Member State. “It’s about how the criminal-minded bludgeon the press with the burden of defending baseless claims,” he said.
Earlier this year, Reporters Without Borders had noted how in Malta, abusive judicial proceedings were being used to “gag investigative reporters by draining their financial resources”. They added that a handful of journalists were “shedding light on the Island State’s rampant corruption and money laundering… as well as having to live in fear, they are subjected to intense judicial harassment.”
Another timely reminder of the rampant abuse of defamation law in an EU member state. Defamation law isn’t just about the fine detail of judicial reasoning; it’s about how the criminal-minded bludgeon the press with the burden of defending baseless claims. https://t.co/8WxZL5ZLrN
— Justin Borg-Barthet (@JustinBBarthet) November 11, 2019
Civil society organisation Repubblika also called for Schembri’s resignation, stating that “while every citizen has the right to refuse to testify to avoid self-incrimination, a political figure who chooses to do so must resign immediately”.
PN MEP David Casa added that Schembri “couldn’t allow himself to be questioned as he’d either have to admit to corruption and money laundering or commit perjury”.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is still pursuing a libel case against the late journalist despite warnings from the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights that this resulted in a “chilling effect on investigative journalism“.
When asked by journalists outside of Castille, why he had dropped the case, Schembri told them that he was “not scared at all” before hastily retreating into the Office of the Prime Minister.