Empty words and technicalities

“No thanks, we’ve already got some.”

That was the government’s reply to requests for a Europol Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Law Enforcement Minister Byron Camilleri’s excuse to Parliament was that Europol’s already involved in the case.

But the assistance they’ve been asked to provide so far — directed by the Malta Police — is a far cry from the kind of JIT effort that resulted in prosecutions and convictions in the case of murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak.

It’s no surprise to see Malta greeting this proposal with the same lack of enthusiasm they had for the independent public inquiry.

It carries too great a risk that impartial outsiders could control the investigation. And those investigators might discover what the government of Malta already knows.

Rather than clear the waters in this case, the government has consistently tried to muddy them.

If you could plug their actions into an iPod, it would be the Deliberate Obstruction Playlist.

Joseph Muscat pardoned Melvin Theuma on his own authority, but then denied he had the power to cut the same deal with Yorgen Fenech. What did Muscat and Theuma agree to as the price for the latter’s freedom?

The government also fought tooth and nail to prevent lead investigator Silvio Valletta being removed from the case for obvious conflict of interest. But being the husband of a Labour minister wasn’t even his most compromising connection.

When events finally hit the wall last November, we learned Valletta had been feeding inside information to one of the chief suspects all along. It turns out the cop and the oligarch were good friends.

It’s bad enough that the chief investigator was telling the chief suspect just how far they’d got in their attempts to track him down. But why keep the prime minister’s chief of staff in the loop, too? Why, indeed.

The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily sidelined both the public inquiry and the compilation of evidence against Fenech, but it hasn’t sidelined efforts to make sure certain stones remain unturned.

The latest ploy was the defection from the Attorney General’s office of a young lawyer who went from prosecution to defence team literally overnight.

But it’s not yet another conflict of interest, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis claimed. Technically, Charles Mercieca “never worked directly or indirectly” on Fenech’s case. No, Mercieca’s behaviour was simply “insensitive”.

Former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello saw things differently.

“I must congratulate Charles Mercieca for achieving something I believed to be impossible,” Bonello told The Shift. “He managed to be shameless and shameful at the same time.”

Why would Moneybags Fenech want to hire a boy lawyer with two years experience when the stakes are so high? What could Mercieca possibly have to offer apart from inside information or the chance of a mistrial because of his actions?

It turns out legal ties aren’t the only ones binding in this case.

The boy lawyer’s father Franco Mercieca was a Labour Party MP. He’s also Keith Schembri’s close friend and eye doctor. He told his son on social media to ignore criticism because his parents were “proud” of him.

Speaking of eye issues, you’ll recall that Fenech paid for Schembri’s expensive cancer treatments in the US. They were close friends, too.

Friends all around. What a small world it is.

Someone must be terrified at the idea of Fenech taking the witness stand. I wouldn’t expect him to sink with the ship without dragging his co-conspirators down along with him.

But do they really imagine grasping at technical loopholes could possibly make this problem go away?

I think they might. You see, this is a government that’s always been very careful with words.

When Caruana Galizia published her most electrifying revelation, Muscat didn’t go on television and say, “Of course my wife doesn’t own Egrant. We would never do such an underhanded thing.”

No, he said, “We never signed any type of document which transfers shares of a company. I have never signed, never been offered to sign…”

Those are not the words of someone professing his innocence. They’re the words of a man looking for a loophole.

Unfortunately, ‘I never said I didn’t own it, I just said I didn’t sign anything…’ exonerates no one.

When questioned about his own connections to Caruana Galizia’s murder after Schembri was arrested, Slippery Joe said, “I would definitely resign if there is any sort of association between myself and the murder.” Well, that’s reassuring.

When asked if the Muscats are still soaking the public for benefits like cars, offices or consulting contracts through any ministry since Abela took over, the Principal Permanent Secretary’s Office didn’t say yes or no. It said the office “does not hold such a document in its general records”.

It’s the same pattern of deliberate wordplay across the board.

They’re even trying these games with the Council of Europe.

Rather than address the real concerns raised by Moneyval — suggestions which would help Malta shore up its financial sector and make its anti-money laundering efforts more effective — this government is trying to cobble together just enough points to get by through ticking off the least threatening boxes.

After all, they just have to get ‘substantial’ in three of 11 sections in order to pass.

So they’ll hire more staff, write a few guidelines no one will observe, file a lot more suspicious transaction reports no one will act on, and maybe even convict a couple of expendables. Just like it says on paper.

All while conspicuously avoiding the one action that would convince international regulatory bodies Malta isn’t a corrupt pirate State: prosecuting the high level financial crimes that were documented and exposed over two years ago, starting with Schembri and Mizzi.

I hate to be the one to waft fresh air through the fumes of that pipe dream, but empty words and technicalities aren’t going to dig Malta out of the hole it gleefully burrowed itself into.

The immediate crisis might be avoided, but it’s still the bottom of a very deep pit, and the batteries in the torch are running out.

This adversarial approach simply underlines what everyone else has already realised. Malta is determined to stay off the blacklist — if possible — while doing nothing to reign in the rampant criminality at the top.

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