Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?
In court yesterday, Keith Schembri acted like the kid in the playground who mouths off and picks fights while whispering, “Hold me back….”, to his friend.
Unfortunately for him, Magistrate Victor Axiaq was having none of this ‘holding back’ nonsense. He upheld the law in a country where few seem willing to take the risk anymore, repeatedly ordering Schembri to take the witness stand and finish the libel fight that Schembri himself had started.
According to his own tweet in May last year, this is what Keith Schembri wanted all along:
Today I was again prepared to testify and expose all the lies maliciously spread by @SimonBusuttil, but his repeated maneuvers led the Court to order that my testimony be postponed to a later date. Why doesn’t Busuttil want me to testify?
— Keith Schembri (@keithaschembri) May 3, 2018
“Today I was again prepared to testify and expose all the lies maliciously spread by Simon Busuttil,” he wrote, “but his repeated maneuvers (sic) led the Court to order that my testimony be postponed to a later date. Why doesn’t Busuttil want me to testify?”
Well, that ‘later date’ finally arrived in spite of his efforts to avoid it.
Forced to take the stand after more than three years of twisting and turning like a Chinese contortionist, Schembri bent all the way backwards and kissed his own arse goodbye in front of a packed courtroom.
At least, that would have been the case in a normal country where the Prime Minister’s chief of staff refused to answer a direct question about his involvement in high level corruption on the grounds that answering it could incriminate himself.
The ‘malicious lies’ Schembri claimed to want to defend himself against relate to his having set up a Panama company called Tillgate within days of this government being elected. The documented evidence for it is public.
Schembri objected to statements that alleged these actions were corrupt, claiming there was “nothing untoward” about having an offshore structure. But Schembri’s draft business plan also mentioned a mysterious company called 17 Black as one of Tillgate’s sources of income. He confirmed this in a press release. What could be wrong with that?
Of course, no one knew who owned 17 Black when Schembri launched his libel suit. But when the owner was revealed to be Yorgen Fenech, one of the owners of the Electrogas power station, many of the blanks were filled in.
By some odd coincidence, Yorgen Fenech happened to be out of the country when Schembri took the stand this week – Fenech was in Disneyland (no joke). We can only speculate on how he spent his time at the Magic Kingdom. Sending normal reality spinning on the Tilt-a-Whirl perhaps? Pondering nepotism at It’s a Small World? Or wandering through the disorienting House of Mirrors?
He could have saved himself a trip. The corridors of Castille are filled with funhouse mirrors, and they’ve got more than one clown.
Please, can we just cut the nonsense?
Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff has just tacitly admitted his guilt in court. He dropped his libel suit against Busuttil to avoid answering direct questions about kickbacks on the deal with SOCAR (Azerbaijan’s gas company) to supply Malta with LNG.
His lawyer, Pawlu Lia, coincidentally also the Prime Minister’s personal lawyer, advised Schembri not to answer because his testimony could be self-incriminating. Meaning, he would admit his own guilt.
As far back as 5 May 2017, Muscat said, “if the new magistrate finds that there is room for a criminal investigation to be opened on Keith Schembri, then Schembri will take responsibility and resign.”
By November 2018, Schembri’s shady dealings were the subject of three separate magisterial inquiries: one on payments from 17 Black, one on suspected kickbacks on passport sales by Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna, and one on offshore payments to former Allied Newspapers managing director Adrian Hillman.
All three deal with the crime of money laundering.
And so, Muscat’s story had to change. ‘Keith Schembri is not being investigated,’ he claimed. ‘The company 17 Black was being investigated” — as though the issue of illicit payments between 17 Black and Tillgate, Schembri’s documented Panama company, had nothing to do with one another.
He was at it again in April 2019, splitting hairs after Magistrate Doreen Clarke accepted a request for an inquiry into Schembri and Minister Konrad Mizzi based on evidence presented in the Panama Papers.
“What Magistrate Clarke said is a continuation of what other Judges said before,” Muscat claimed, when justifying again why no resignation was necessary. It’s not a new inquiry, just new and different evidence of criminal activity being added to an existing inquiry.
Muscat insisted that he would await the outcome of the endless inquiry into 17 Black before pronouncing on the fate of his embattled chief of staff.
Well, this week’s court case dealt with exactly that. After several increasingly desperate attempts to avoid taking the stand, Schembri dropped the libel case that he himself had filed rather than answer a direct question about 17 Black.
Did Joseph Muscat ask for Schembri’s resignation? Of course not. Like a child insisting “that one didn’t count”, he shielded him yet again.
Schembri won’t resign, and Muscat won’t fire him. That was made clear in parliament yesterday after Opposition Leader Adrian Delia called for Schembri’s dismissal. Ask yourself why.
And while you’re at it, ask yourself why politicians in Malta are allowed to abuse defamation laws without consequence, launching an endless series of punitive libel suits to avoid answering questions, dragging things out for years, clouding the waters with endless distractions, wasting taxpayer money and court time, only to drop the case when it finally makes it to trial.
Economy Minister Chris Cardona dropped his ‘brothelgate’ case against assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia to avoid having his phone records presented as irrefutable evidence against him. That’s after freezing her accounts, leaving her without access to her own money at the time of her brutal murder.
Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi dropped his case against Simon Busuttil to avoid Nexia BT partner Karl Cini being questioned in court about Mizzi’s company Hearnville and 17 Black.
And now Schembri has dropped his case against Busuttil to avoid answering questions under oath about his relationship with 17 Black.
They huffed and puffed and proclaimed their innocence. They vowed to have their day in court, and refused to address allegations of serious corruption until they could stand before a Judge.
Of course, they did everything they possibly could to avoid that day in court, hiding out in a strange grey zone between accusation and legal conviction, proclaiming themselves innocent because they hadn’t yet been charged.
And when they were finally pinned down and dragged there, they each voluntarily dropped their case, knowing full well the implications of that decision in the public mind. I suppose it’s a small price compared to the cost of being grilled under oath.
Why are these men still in government?
Why does Muscat continue to defend them despite the obvious damage it does to the remaining shreds of his credibility?
And, the most pressing question of all, why are the citizens of Malta putting up with this?
Civil society groups Repubblika and Occupy Justice have called for a protest demanding Schembri’s resignation. It will take place at 7pm in Valletta on Saturday 16 November.