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On Joseph Muscat’s watch

He kept insisting he wanted to resolve the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination “under my watch”. It turns out his wrist watch may have been a significant clue, hiding in plain sight.

It was in 2014 that Yorgen Fenech allegedly gifted Joseph Muscat with the white gold, Bvlgari collector’s item whose estimated worth is in the tens of thousands of euros. Muscat has responded to that claim with a statement that is striking in what it does not say.

Ordinarily, if you’re falsely accused, you simply issue a categorical denial. But the OPM statement denies nothing categorically. It denounces “partial, deeply manipulated information”. All that means is that the revelations meant to harm Muscat. Thank you.

The OPM statement refers to “pure inventions”. Why not say in plain direct English that the gift of a watch is a pure invention? Instead, we’re told that Muscat always followed “all the codes and rules related to gifts he received”.

That’s compatible with accepting the watch but informing someone about it – you know, the way Konrad Mizzi turned out to have informed Muscat about his secret Panama company before Caruana Galizia revealed it.

If the watch was accepted, then corruption occurred. If accepting it complied with some niftily rewritten rule, or followed a nod from some ethics czar we have yet to hear from, then the rule or the czar is corrupt too. In no self-respecting democracy is such a gift remotely acceptable.

So the OPM statement is anything but reassuring. The implications of receiving such a watch go beyond the obvious. It’s not just about Muscat’s hypocrisy at having organised a political crusade against Tonio Fenech, the PN finance minister who had accepted the gift of a clock worth some €500.

Nor is it that the date of the gift tells us that, if he did accept the watch, then Muscat’s political project was rotten from the start. The watch, it’s claimed, was given in late 2014, just over a year after Muscat became Prime Minister. In that case, the rot was a feature, not a bug.

No, the real issue is this. If the story is true, then it has a bearing on the assassination and its investigation.

First, the OPM statement says that the Prime Minister “did his duty” despite the threat of “a smear campaign”. This seems to mean (the waffle makes it uncertain) that despite being threatened with the revelation, Yorgen Fenech was still arrested, charged with the assassination and denied all immunity.

If that’s what’s meant, however, it trips up over what we’ve been told so far. It suggests that the prosecution is down to Muscat’s sense of over-riding duty. But weren’t we told that the institutions were working autonomously? Wasn’t immunity decided by Cabinet as a whole?

If the original version is correct, then Muscat had little to do with the decisions concerning Fenech. So the claim of special merit is deceptive.

If, on the other hand, Muscat was indeed decisive in how Fenech was treated, then the public was previously misled. Muscat was in a position to sway the course of events – a scandal in itself.

So which is it? Muscat can’t have it both ways. He can’t say he didn’t influence events to defend his decision not to step down, while taking credit for influencing events when addressing Bvlgari-gate.

There is another matter. Muscat appears to be claiming he didn’t let the watch influence him. But did the alleged acceptance of the watch affect Fenech? Did it give him a sense of influence over the Prime Minister and the State?

Melvin Theuma’s testimony suggests Fenech felt immune. Told that the FBI were involved in the investigation, he reportedly told Theuma, cynically, that it made no difference since the Malta Police was ultimately in charge.

And why should Fenech not have felt immune? Every detail we know about the Electrogas deal suggest that, at each critical stage, the deal was helped out by people deep in the heart of decision-making – from the tendering process to the financing to the disadvantageous contractual obligations that Malta was bound to.

If Muscat did accept that watch, he not only accepted a gift he should have never accepted. He also gave Fenech the impression, however mistaken, that they were now close enough for Fenech to act with impunity. Did his duty? He would have failed twice over.

That’s why the public must be told whether Muscat did accept such a watch. Immediately, not in Muscat’s own time. On the truth or falsity of the allegation, hangs the full truth of an assassination.

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