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Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi resigns, Economy Minister Cardona ‘suspends himself’

Konrad Mizzi
Minister Konrad Mizzi.

Following a long cabinet meeting held at the Office of the Prime Minister on Tuesday, Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi finally submitted his resignation. Economy Minister Chris Cardona, who has also been questioned by police in connection with the murder, ‘suspended himself’.

Later on Tuesday, it was reported that Yorgen Fenech spoke at length with former chief of staff Keith Schembri  just hours before the businessman attempted to flee the island on his yacht. The call was revealed as investigators continue to analyse Fenech’s phone data. Schembri is alleged to have kept Fenech informed about developments in the murder case in the lead up to his arrest.

As the remaining members of Cabinet made their way from Castille to parliament this afternoon, the Prime Minister was followed by angry citizens shouting “Mafia”, “Thief” and “Murderer”.

Opposition Leader Adrian Delia posted a video message on social media, where he called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. “Now we are speaking of facts, not allegations,” he said. “Using his own yardstick, Joseph Muscat must go.”

Delia spoke to The Shift in an exclusive interview on Tuesday afternoon. “What we are witnessing today is institutional breakdown at its worst,” he said.

These resignations come in the wake of the sudden departure of Keith Schembri, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff.

In comments to the media earlier today, Muscat said that his chief of staff “had decided to move on” and that his resignation was meant to “allow the government to continue working in a serene way”.

Schembri’s resignation came after a late night meeting with Muscat at the Prime Minister’s home, reportedly after the police were presented with new evidence linking Schembri to Yorgen Fenech, owner of 17 Black and former chair of Tumas Group. Fenech is providing police with information related to the murder of Caruana Galizia.

It is believed that Fenech, who is under arrest, decided to cooperate with the authorities after the government announced that a presidential pardon had been granted to Melvin Theuma, a person suspected of acting as a middleman in the Caruana Galizia murder.

Fenech’s Dubai-based company 17 Black was set up to provide daily kickbacks of €5,000 to Schembri and to Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, according to leaked emails.

In a statement, the family of Caruana Galizia urged the Maltese authorities to “immediately prosecute Schembri for his wide-ranging and long-running criminal activity.”

“We urge Europol to provide the required, essential support to investigators, prosecutors and magistrates who are attempting to follow the money trail of the Malta-Azerbaijan money laundering network across jurisdictions, including especially the United Arab Emirates.”

They also called on the authorities to seek the reasons why Muscat protected Schembri and Konrad Mizzi for three years. “The failure to prosecute Schembri, Mizzi and their protectors had fatal consequences for our wife and mother. If that failure continues, it will have fatal consequences for Malta’s democracy.”

Meanwhile, in a tweet, Caruana Galizia’s son Andrew said the government’s decision to ignore her warnings about Schembri led to her death.

Pieter Omtzigt, Special Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), posted a detailed assessment of his concerns over Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s role in the murder investigation.

In a letter to Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, Omtzigt wrote, “The Prime Minister’s recent statements suggest that he has taken on additional responsibilities in relation to this investigation. Not only does he seem to be the only politician regularly briefed by the police, he appears to have acted as their sole spokesperson; taken unilateral decisions on pardons, without consulting the Cabinet; and even played an operational decision-making role.”

“This allows for the impression, if not the reality, of interference or improper influence over the investigation and related decision-making, going beyond even the influence inherent in his extensive powers of appointment within the criminal justice and judicial systems,” Omtzigt stated.

He closed by reminding Bonnici — and the Prime Minister — that  Vincent Degaetano, former Chief Justice, Deputy Attorney General and Judge at the European Court of Human Rights, called for Muscat to “take not one but several steps back so as to assure one and all that he is not in any way, even only inadvertently, influencing the ongoing regulations.”

A coalition of Europe’s leading press freedom groups issued a press release this afternoon, echoing calls for Muscat to distance himself from the murder investigation. “The financial interests of Muscat’s cabinet present the serious possibility of a conflict of interest for the Prime Minister with regard to the investigation,” the statement said. “These concerns are intensified by Malta’s well-documented weak separation of powers as outlined in recent reports of the Venice Commission and the PACE Legal Affairs Committee.”

The statement was signed by ARTICLE 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), IFEX, International Press Institute , PEN America, PEN International, Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Scottish PEN.

The Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon disassociating themselves from those who use business as a shield for criminal activity. “Reputational damage started with the Panama Papers and went unchecked for years in spite of repeated calls to take bold decisions. It has now reached unprecedented heights, and may continue to do so until justice is served.”

“The country needs a major clean up, that will have immediate repercussions on economic activity. We cannot continue running away from this because the problems we have will not go away. On the contrary, they will grow bigger, to the detriment of the genuine entrepreneur, of which there are many, and Maltese society at large, that needs to come to terms with its predicament and free itself from the shackles of polarised politics.”

Civil society organisations are calling citizens to join them for another protest in front of the Auberge de Castille tonight, Tuesday 26 November 2019 at 19:00 to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

 

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