Melvin Theuma has refused to testify against the men who allegedly gave him a government non-job after he brokered the contract for the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Such cases tend to pass unnoticed amid the daily bombardment of scandals — especially when couched in legal minutiae — but it’s worth paying attention to this one because justice is denied one quiet step at a time.
You’ll recall that Theuma was arrested on 14 November 2019 as part of a money laundering probe into the illegal betting industry. He was involved in loan sharking, horse racing, and possibly narcotics, and when he wasn’t running illicit financial transactions, he drove a taxi with the rare privilege of operating at the Hilton hotel.
He was also Portomaso owner Yorgen Fenech’s personal driver — but police knew he was involved in so much more. Rumours leaked that Interpol had grown frustrated with the Malta Police’s refusal to arrest him despite ample evidence. A money laundering probe was meant to force their hand.
He wasn’t in custody very long before he started to talk. The small-time crook claimed he’d been the middleman in the Caruana Galizia assassination and promised to testify against the mastermind in exchange for immunity for all his crimes.
He was granted a Presidential Pardon on the sole authority of then prime minister Joseph Muscat, but the deal came with conditions. Theuma had to reveal everything he knew about Caruana Galizia’s assassination, and his testimony had to be corroborated.
Did the agreement include avoiding details that would inconvenience the only man with the power to set him free?
At the time of his arrest, Theuma was holding an ice cream box filled with USB sticks and a photo of himself with Keith Schembri.
How had he gotten so close to the prime minister’s chief of staff?
In the months leading up to the 2017 elections, Theuma claims Yorgen Fenech met him at the Hilton next to the Blue Elephant restaurant and said, “I want to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia.” He wanted Theuma to arrange the hit.
Not long after his meetings with the Degiorgio brothers, the contract killers convicted of the crime last week, Theuma got a call from Sandro Craus, head of customer care at the Office of the Prime Minister. He was told he had an appointment with Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff.
“I was taken aback,” he said in court testimony. “I had never been to Castille before.”
He was met by Schembri, who posed for a photo and ordered coffee before passing the middleman off to Craus — and then the money started to flow. Theuma was paid a monthly salary for a phantom job without ever reporting for work.
That phantom job case finally made its way to court in June with Schembri, Fenech and OPM officials in the dock.
The star witness took the stand, but when told he had the right not to answer self-incriminating questions, Theuma refused to testify. How he might incriminate himself after being given a pardon for telling everything he knew about the Caruana Galizia assassination is anyone’s guess.
Defence lawyers tried to have all statements that Theuma made under oath removed from the case because they were unable to cross-examine the witness.
That request was denied, but Theuma’s refusal to testify against Schembri raises some alarming red flags for the other cases linked to Malta’s most shocking murder because the former chief of staff is the alleged link connecting the contract killing to the highest levels of government.
It wasn’t the first time Theuma backpedalled on the witness stand.
In the compilation of evidence against hitmen George and Alfred Degiorgio, Theuma testified that he believed Schembri was involved in the assassination, but because this was based on what Fenech had told him, he “cannot confirm under oath that he [Schembri] was [in the picture]”.
“I believed Keith Schembri was a big deal,” Theuma said, “and since Yorgen got information from him, I believed that we would never get caught.”
Theuma knew the date that police would arrest the hitmen, and he knew when his own premises would be searched in connection with illegal betting and money laundering, but he was told not to worry because the “prime minister, the police and all” were behind him.
Perhaps most alarming of all, police found a copy of Theuma’s draft Presidential Pardon on Fenech’s phone, and a photo from a classified intelligence report about the criminal gang who supplied the hitmen with the bomb.
Such documents could only have come from someone at the highest level of government.
The case against Fenech is largely based on secret recordings Theuma made of their conversations. They contain shocking details of both the murder plot and attempts to cover it up, aided by high ranking police officials and prominent Labour Party politicians.
Fenech’s defence team is claiming that what Theuma said in his recordings does not match his court testimony and that not all recordings have been disclosed.
Theuma is both the prosecution’s star witness and its weakest link, especially given the mysterious way his Presidential Pardon was negotiated.
Attacks on his credibility pose the greatest threat to the case against those who allegedly ordered the hit.
Theuma’s refusal to testify against Schembri, Fenech and others in the phantom job case provides a grim foreshadowing of how those other cases could fall apart, and how the people behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination could evade justice.