Minister Carmelo Abela was asked to explain why the son of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a diplomat, was recalled so suddenly from a diplomatic posting in India in 2017.
Testifying before the Board of Inquiry investigating the circumstances surrounding the journalist’s death, Abela was asked what was “so urgent” for Caruana Galizia to be recalled shortly after Abela took on his new role as Foreign Minister.
Abela said he did not see the relevance of the question.
Lawyer Jason Azzopardi added: “It wasn’t normal. He was called back with two weeks’ notice, put in an office in Malta with no work”.
Asked by the Board if he had been pressured by the OPM to recall him, Abela said he did not remember.
Board questions extent of Cabinet scrutiny on major projects
Throughout the sitting, the Board repeatedly emphasised the importance of Cabinet scrutiny on major projects.
Judge Abigail Lofaro noted how, despite having heard the testimonies of several ministers, it remains unclear whether Cabinet discussions were held on matters related to the Panama Papers and the allegations that followed.
Abela could not confirm whether such discussions were held.
“Was the Cabinet conscious of projects only after they were approved? For us, it’s important to know,” Lofaro said.
Abela was vague in his reply, saying “Cabinet members are notified on projects through memos, followed by a presentation by the minister involved. I do not know of a Cabinet that would look at each project in detail”.
“But what about big projects like the hospital deal?” the Board asked.
“How did he present that project to you? Was it with graphs and as a proposal? Projects in a sector as important as health needs to be scrutinised,” former Chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino poined out.
Abela said he did not recall the timing of the hospital deal and may not have been a minister at the time and was not present for any presentations on the subject.
Abela said he was unaware of the existence of a “Kitchen Cabinet“, previously raised by current Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna.
‘No recollection’ of requests for phone tapping
Asked about action taken following the Panama Papers, Abela, who was Home Affairs Minister at the time, insisted that it was not up to him to tell the police to start investigations.
“The police are independent, if they thought there was need for an investigation they should not have waited for me,” he argued.
Abela reiterated this when asked about action following 17 Black. Said Pullicino retorted that at that time “public opinion was divided” and Abela had responsibility in this regard.
“I did not think I had to intervene. When I intervene they say ‘don’t intervene’ and if I don’t intervene they say ‘why didn’t you intervene’”, was Abela’s reply.
He said he told former prime minister Joseph Muscat that those involved in Panama Papers had to “clear their name”.
The police had been heavily criticised for not taking action on government officials following allegations on corruption. Former Head of Economic Crimes Unit Ian Abdilla was harshly criticised for inaction on revelations in the Panama Papers, Pilatus Bank, 17 Black and former chief of staff Keith Schembri.
Lofaro was also asked whether he was requested by the security service to approve requests for phone tapping into people involved in allegations. Abela again said he did not remember.
Abela heard of 2017 snap election only when announced
Abela also said he not informed about the snap general election in 2017 prior to its announcement. He said that he got to know about it as it was announced.
“I was shocked because I wasn’t expecting it,” he said.
This confirms the testimony of Minister Michael Farrugia in September, who had also told the Inquiry Board how the Cabinet was not informed of the decision to hold the election.
The Board also heard that before the previous election in 2013, most projects had not been mentioned within the Party.
The Board asked whether the passport scheme and hospital deal were mentioned. Abela said he did not recall them being mentioned.