“The inquiry will go on till the end” and “there’s no justice without change” were the main messages of a protest held today on the steps of the Prime Minister’s Office in Valletta.
Protesters held placards calling for justice while others referred to the Electrogas project. They called the Ministers “traitors” and called them out for being close to criminals.
The protest organised by NGO Repubblika to mark 35 months since the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia attracted a sizeable crowd that spread across Castille Square.
The protesters called out Prime Minister Robert Abela for his “attempt to stop the public inquiry” (Tazzardawx tippruvaw twaqqfu l–inkjesta pubblika).
Others read “a power station stinking of corruption” and “ministers shoulder to shoulder with criminals” among others. The protesters called for justice for the journalist.
“It is unacceptable that Ministers keep washing their hands of these agreements. They are the people who supported Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona. If it wasn’t for them, the country would not have been tied to Electrogas,” Robert Aquilina from Repubblika told the crowd.
“Now, Abela wants to stop an inquiry that is revealing a lot on these deals. The Prime Minister wants accomplices and does not want the truth to come out. Without truth, there’s no justice,” he added.
The protest, which featured placards of the three ‘wise’ monkeys, was held only a couple of hours after another sitting of the public inquiry looking into the journalist’s death.
Chris Fearne’s stand on public inquiry contradicts Prime Minister’s
Testifying today, Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne expressed support for the inquiry in a stand that contrasts with that of Prime Minister who said on Tuesday that the inquiry “is an experiment that (he has) certain reservations about in the way the inquiry is failing to keep to the terms of reference given to it”.
Taking on a different tone, Fearne told the board on Wednesday that he “understands the importance of the inquiry and thinks it will have repercussions for the future of the country”.
“I want to co-operate fully,” he added.
Meanwhile, Abela decided to give a “one-time” extension to the inquiry board which is set to end in December. The lawyers had argued that this was not enough and the board should take all the time necessary to complete its task.
On Wednesday, the board read out a reply from Abela saying that he had nothing to add to his decision.
The lawyers representing the family reacted: “Our position is clear, we don’t need his permission to extend. I understand that the Prime Minister only enters with a say about resources,” Therese Comodini Cachia said.
Fearne distances himself from responsibility on VGH deal
Fearne distanced himself from responsibility for the Vitals Global Healthcare hospitals deal during the public inquiry today arguing that he was kept in the dark.
The board heard how he was “not at all involved” with the 2014 deal between the government and VGH, sealed by disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi. Fearne was Parliamentary Secretary for Health at the time.
Yet Fearne has continued to back the deal, even telling the nation the takeover by Steward Healthcare was “the real deal”.
A probe by The Shift, in collaboration with European journalists, had traced the new deals being signed in other countries by the once-hidden investors in Vitals Global Healthcare and found links between the two.
Fearne told the board that at that time, the negotiations with the preferred bidder were not under his remit, he did not know what experience the other two bidders had. He said he learned about the Memorandum of Understanding only recently and has still not seen it “till today”.
Asked whether he had conducted due diligence into the deal once taking Mizzi’s place as Health Minister, Fearne said he had appointed technical experts to make sure that “the deal was being adhered to by VGH and the government”.
Fearne painted a picture of a deal entangled in secrecy, excluding the involvement of even key people within the ministry. He said that the Foundation for Medical Services was not involved in the VGH project, and Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) from Fearne were only requested after the bidders were chosen.
“So there weren’t any KPIs in the request for proposals?” Comodini Cachia asked. Fearne replied that if there were, they had not been put forward by him.
Questionned by lawyer Jason Azzopardi, Fearne also revealed how he, as Minister for Health, was not informed about a waiver of €9 million signed by Mizzi, who was then Minister for Tourism.
Fearne informed the board that the waiver was extended till the end of February. He said negotiations with Steward Healthcare are ongoing.
Lack of political responsibility from government slammed by board
The board asked the Deputy Prime Minister what action had been taken and what political responsibility carried following major revelations, including the Panama Papers exposé and revelations linked to 17 Black.
Fearne defended Mizzi staying on within the administration, arguing that he took political responsibility by having his position as deputy leader, as well as his ministry portfolio, removed. He argued that he was then re-elected by voters.
“However, (despite removing his portfolio) Mizzi was still responsible for projects for which allegations (of wrongdoing) were linked to. Could you live with that?” asked Comodini Cachia.
Fearne replied that he had not seen clear evidence of wrongdoing in regard to those specific projects. “Today I might think differently,” he added.
Fearne said investigations were happening and that it is not the Cabinet’s responsibility to investigate, but rather that the bodies investigating have the necessary resources and power to work. Other Ministers testifying adopted a similar line.
“But there is also political responsibility,” noted Judge Emeritus Said Pullicino, to which Fearne retorted that responsibility was carried and resignations were made.
“Yes, but all these allegations happened a year before those resignations happened, everything continued going on. There were facts… and then business continued as usual and this could have created the impunity within which this (the murder) happened,” said Judge Michael Mallia.
Using a similar argument as Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo, Fearne said that like other Cabinet members he had, throughout that time, expressed their position internally. “I thought it would have more impact internally,” he said.
Asked about the confidence vote in Mizzi, Fearne said government members were told to back the government whip. “It was not a free vote,” he said.
When questioned by Azzopardi regarding when he got to know about the snap election, Fearne said there was hearsay about it in March and April 2017, but he did not know about it until it was announced.
‘No perception’ of a Kitchen Cabinet
Fearne was questioned about the existence of a Kitchen Cabinet within the government, mentioned by both Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and Bartolo, which included former Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and other consultants including individuals from top firms.
The Deputy Prime Minister replied that he had not formed part of one and did not “have the perception” that there was one. He only heard about it through Scicluna’s and Bartolo’s testimony, he said.
Asked by the board whether he thought projects were centralised, he agreed that Mizzi had numerous projects at Projects Malta. He said that was up to the Prime Minister to decide.
In order to explain the nature of his relationship with Schembri to the board, Fearne said that during the election for deputy leader he felt that Schembri was trying to make sure he was not elected.
“I have publicly said that the role of chief of staff has to change, the role has too much power, and this was true not only in Muscat’s administration but also that of (Eddie) Fenech Adami and (Lawrence) Gonzi,” he said.
Fearne was also asked about the dehumanisation campaign against Caruana Galizia by the Labour Party. He said he was “never in favour of personal attacks”.
“I think it is important for those in certain positions to make their stand known at the appropriate time,” Comodini Cachia said, addressing the board.