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Malta’s crisis of democracy

Castille Square was a sea of flags as thousands of citizens packed the space in front of the Office of the Prime Minister to call for an end to impunity.

Citizens expressed their anger at the unanswered questions about conflicts of interest in the decision not to grant Yorgen Fenech a presidential pardon, and at the unexplained release of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff (until a few days ago) Keith Schembri from police custody.

But this time the Maltese flags were joined by European Union flags, a reflection of the values this crowd expected their elected officials to live up to, and by hundreds of photos of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Protestors held up banners reading ‘mafia government’, ‘investigate our crime minister’, and ‘road map to corruption’ as the sound of roars, air horns, drums and hand cranks filled the air. One placard read, ‘my country is no longer a democracy’, capturing the feeling of those who watched Thursday night’s events unfold.

In a reference to an article published by The Shift, Amy Mallia, Caruana Galizia’s niece, said: “These last couple of months have been one big ‘what the fuck, Joe’ moment”, prompting cries of ‘barra’, ‘mafia’ and ‘justice’ that occasionally drowned out the voices of those on stage, as the presence of so many students and young people brought a burst of energy and a renewed sense of determination to the latest demonstration.

“You are all affected by this – the right to protest and free speech are slowly being removed. Fight back for all this. Now is definitely not the time to be silent,” she told the cheering crowd.

The crowd chanted, “Assassin…. assassin… assassin…”, and then they sang ‘Vaffanculo’ (or ‘Fuck You’) by Italian pop star Marco Masini, a message clearly directed at a man whose resignation they are demanding.

Josef Vella, CEO of the Union Haddiema Magħqudin, said this was an unprecedented situation. “This week we saw the resignations of Schembri, the resignation of Konrad Mizzi and self-suspension of Chris Cardona. Our country is been watched and under the lens of other countries…for all the wrong reasons. Our country is exhausted and exasperated from all these crises.”

He called on Finance Minister Edward Scicluna to resign in light of today’s judgment that placed him, Cardona and Mizzi under investigation in a magisterial inquiry in relation to the Vitals deal based on evidence in the investigation published by The Shift. “Now there is a new trend, I resign if I am found guilty by the court. If you are found guilty you go to prison,” Vella said.

The organised part of the gathering ended in the same way each previous protest has come to a close: with thousands of people singing the national anthem with torches and flags held high.

As the protestors were gathering in Castille Square, eight international freedom of expression and human rights organisations issued a statement condemning the government’s response to the current crisis.

They said: “We are concerned by the authorities’ failure to properly inform the public about the Cabinet discussions or about the release of Schembri – which was announced by the police via a one-sentence Facebook post, with no further information to follow.”

They called on the government to ensure journalists were able to carry out their duties free from threats and intimidation.

The EU Observer wrote: “The spectre of Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat coming to EU Summits, or his government voting on various measures in the EU Council despite the revelations on the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia is an odious one.” They called for EU sanctions on the country if Muscat refuses to step down.

Tensions reached new heights on Friday afternoon, with a spontaneous student protest blocking traffic on Regional Road near the skate park roundabout close to University, and both Castille and Parliament completely encircled by layers of heavy barricades in an effort to keep the people as far away as possible from their Prime Minister and their elected representatives.

The Shift’s journalist on the scene saw an Armed Forces Land Rover arrive and a group of soldiers enter Castille through a side door. A large police presence was also on site, with officers being briefed that their job was to protect protestors as well as politicians. After this, the barriers were moved all the way back to the steps of the building hosting the Office of the Prime Minister.

Council of Europe Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt issued a two-page statement in which he listed a timeline of the past week’s developments. “After the astonishing events of the past two weeks, and especially the last 24 hours, now is the time to take stock and to look to the future,” he said. He called on Muscat to tender his resignation as Prime Minister at the earliest opportunity and to resign from parliament.

The alleged mastermind of the assassination, Yorgen Fenech, was in court on Friday afternoon attempting to have police Inspector Arnaud removed from the case after claiming Arnaud was informing Schembri of developments in the investigation. It should be noted that Arnaud was also one of the officers who arrested Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2013.

Fenech was interviewed by news media as he left the court. When asked, “Are you afraid for your life?” he replied, “Yes.” Arguably the most important witness in this case — one with information on the country’s top political figures — then walked down the street in a crowd of cameramen and journalists with no police protection.

The near-nightly protests of the past two weeks have all been peaceful demonstrations. Yet, Muscat has shown he will go to any lengths to protect his best friend and former chief of staff, his inner circle, and quite possibly himself. At the end of the night, despite rumours of his impending resignation, Joseph Muscat was still in power.

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