A small village bar in Rabat, a cup of tea, a government official, a mobile phone and a set of photographs were the main protagonists of a series of questions put to a witness by three judges on a public Board of inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The target of these questions was Ronnie Vella who was asked about his presence in a small Rabat bar in May 2017. “I don’t remember,” was his most common reply.
Vella told the Board that he was employed as a projects manager at Projects Malta with the exception of four months when he was employed at the Office of the Prime Minister’s communications team – the period coincided with the time that journalists were locked in a room at Castille with Vella at the door.
Vella is one of the men who kept journalists locked up in a room in the Office of the Prime Minister following a late-night press conference by Joseph Muscat on 29 November 2019. He will testify about it before the board at a later date as he was called for questioning by the police.
The Board asked Vella whether he remembered being at the bar with another person and passing on information about two other people, who were also there, to a third party.
He answered most of the questions with: “I don’t remember.”
At one point, the three judges reminded Vella that he was under oath. “Be careful of what you are saying”.
Vella’s testimony is very similar to that of other government officials who said they could not remember anything when asked questions by the board
He was shown a number of photos to help jog his memory – including two A3 coloured photographs – at which point he said he remembered being there and the man he was seated with.
“There was a press conference in the morning at Buskett or Mdina and we stopped to have tea after. We used to work together in the electoral campaign,” he said.
The Board then asked him whether he took videos and photos of the other two people in the bar – the photos showed Vella with his phone pointed at the two people while he was looking the other way. “Maybe I’m playing with my phone.”
He pointed out that they went to that bar purely out of coincidence as pastizzi bar is-Serkin was full. “Ah, now you remember,” Judge Abigail Lofaro said.
The Board pointed out that information was sent out about what was taking place in the bar and received by a third party that same day. “What is most significant is that you weren’t looking at your phone,” they said.
Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew, also presented a dossier to the inquiry board with an email and spreadsheet that his mother had received in a series of leaks linked to Electrogas in 2017. He had assisted her and continued to receive information even after her death.
One of these emails included correspondence from Electrogas, in 2018, with an invitation list for a party to celebrate the closing of the deal. The party, which was held at Level 22 nightclub in Portomaso, had a budget of €30,000 for 128 people and was organised by Yorgen Fenech, owner of 17 Black and director in Electrogas.
The email notes that Muscat, his wife Michelle, Charlene Bianco Farrugia, Kenneth Azzopardi, Schembri and Neville Gafa were on the guest list, Caruana Galizia told the inquiry board.
“There were worries that Electrogas was going to default on the payments – it did on the first one. After my mother’s murder, the government extended the guarantee so Electrogas continued to purchase gas from Socar.”
He explained that the email was relevant because it would have been unlikely that the government would have extended the loan to Electrogas if information about Fenech being the owner of 17 Black emerged before the deal was closed.
Bianco Farrugia was the former personal assistant of Schembri and the next person to testify. Most of her testimony took place behind closed doors. She told the Board that in April 2016 she became Schembri’s executive assistant and started working on projects.
When asked by the Board whether she ever saw Fenech at Castille, she said that she had seen him there sometimes.