Joseph Muscat’s Cabinet was summoned to Castille for an urgent meeting at 8pm on Thursday, on a day fraught with silence, fresh allegations, and a growing sense of outrage both within Malta and abroad.
As the Ministers met behind closed doors, other doors were opened. The news broke at around 9:30pm that former chief of staff Keith Schembri had been released from police arrest.
While all of this was going on, Yorgen Fenech and his lawyers were at court, where the alleged mastermind of the Caruana Galizia assassination appealed directly to the President for a pardon in exchange for information that Fenech says implicates Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona, all “very close to the Prime Minister”.
The closed-door meeting at Castille dragged on into the early hours of the morning. Protestors pressed against the barricades, shouting “barra” (out) and “mafia” towards blank walls that had stopped listening to them long ago.
A brief scuffle broke out as protestors pushed against the barricades and police pushed back, but cool heads prevailed despite the increasing frustration and the situation quickly calmed down.
Matthew and Paul Caruana Galizia were in attendance, and Matthew spoke with the press, clearly shaken by Schembri’s release.
“They’re still protecting him,” he said. “They’re in there probably discussing how they’re going to to work things out either to give Keith Schembri his job back or to help get him to a country where he can’t be extradited back to Malta. It’s completely outrageous.”
“There’s a complete information blackout. We know nothing. My family knows nothing. The journalists know nothing. The people know nothing.”
When asked when he found out about Schembri’s release, he said, “The police released a statement on Facebook, one sentence, ‘we investigated Keith Schembri, found no evidence, and released him.’ And they want us to believe that shit.”
Protestors and journalists remained in the square until the marathon six-hour Cabinet meeting finally came to an end, and reporters were called inside for a press conference at 2.40am.
The Prime Minister was behind the podium by 3am, with his entire Cabinet lined up behind him in a straggling row. Muscat appeared confident and matter of fact as he announced that his government had decided to turn down Fenech’s request for a presidential pardon.
In the brief question period afterwards, a BBC journalist asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “You have known intimately about this investigation for months now. That’s right, isn’t it? And at the same time, the investigation has led to the arrest of a very rich businessman with whom your government has had dealings, and your chief of staff as well has been arrested and questioned. How can anyone have confidence in you? You are deeply compromised in this situation. In your hands rests the pardon power. How can the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the people of Malta have any confidence in you unless you stand aside and let the investigation happen?”
Muscat replied by explaining that the ability to issue pardons does not rest with him alone, but is taken by the entire Cabinet, after seeking advice from the Attorney General. This is a direct contradiction of what he said one week before when claiming the unilateral authority to grant a pardon to alleged middleman Melvin Theuma. But unlike the earlier pardon, the press was told that the entire Cabinet must bear responsibility for the denial of this one.
When asked how he could claim to stand back and let his Cabinet decide on the pardon request by Fenech when some of the allegations Fenech is making concern members of that same Cabinet, Muscat looked behind himself theatrically and said, “I’m not aware that there are allegations about anyone in this Cabinet.” When the journalist named Mizzi and Cardona, Muscat replied, “He’s not a member of Cabinet.” But they were two days ago.
Opposition Leader Adrian Delia made a statement on video immediately after the close of the press conference. “The government and institutions will continue to be run by Joseph Muscat, as he refused to resign and retains control of an investigation that led to Keith Schembri’s release,” he said. “Our country is being run by someone who lost all legitimacy. Those around him are involved in serious crimes. Justice has not been done, and neither will it be seen to be done.”
“The country is in a constitutional crisis,” Delia said. “The Opposition is considering its next steps in the nation’s interest.”
In a statement, Repubblika and Occupy Justice said: “This evening we have witnessed an attack on Maltese democracy and justice. The prime minister has exercised his disproportionate powers to protect his best friend if not himself as well from paying for crimes. Keith Schembri’s release is incomprehensible.”
“Joseph Muscat should have resigned to allow justice to run its course. Instead he held on to the control of Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar and Attorney General Peter Grech and ensured justice would not reach him and his friends.”
Another protest has been called for 6pm on Friday, Castille Square.