Malta has been plunged into a political crisis as the investigation into the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia prompts two ministers and the prime minister’s chief of staff to resign, heaping pressure on the prime minister himself to follow suit.
The resignations of the chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and the tourism minister, Konrad Mizzi, were immediately followed by an announcement that the economy minister, Chris Cardona, was suspending himself. All three men have denied wrongdoing.
Tuesday’s tumultuous events were precipitated by the arrest last week of a Maltese businessman in connection with the 2017 murder of the journalist and anti-corruption blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Yorgen Fenech was arrested at dawn aboard his luxury yacht while trying to leave the Mediterranean island, a day after the government announced it would pardon a suspected middleman if he gives up the names of those who ordered the journalist’s murder.
On Saturday, Cardona, the former economy minister, was questioned by police in connection with the case. In a statement on Tuesday, he said he was suspending himself “following a discussion with the prime minister”.
“Dr Cardona declares that he has absolutely no connection with the case, but after police had asked for further clarifications, he feels duty bound to take this step in the national interest,” said the statement.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mizzi the former tourism minister, also handed in his resignation.
“In light of the extraordinary circumstances and the general sentiment in the country, I personally feel that the right thing to do at this moment in time is for me to step down,” he said.
He denied the corruption allegations against him, saying he had “not done anything wrong from a criminal point of view”.
His departure came as police conducted a search of the home of Keith Schembri, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s former Chief of Staff. Just hours earlier, the prime minister had announced that Schembri had accepted Schembri’s resignation the night before. Mr Schembri was questioned following reports that Yorgen Fenech had told investigators he had incriminating evidence about him, according to the Times of Malta.
Malta’s financial investigation agency have identified Fenech as the owner of a Dubai-based company called 17 Black, which Caruana Galizia was investigating in relation to its connections with important Maltese politicians.
Most of Daphne Caruana’s research work focused on the massive data leak known as the Panama Papers.
According to the emails, some companies based in Panama, owned by the then Maltese Minister of Energy Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, received funds from 17 Black, the Fenech company.
Fenech was detained the day after the Muscat announced that Melvin Theuma, suspected of being the middleman in the plot to kill the journalist, would receive immunity in return for information about who ordered her death. Fenech too is reported to have requested a pardon in exchange for information.
Asked about whether he would now consider his own position, Muscat said: “I have always said I don’t intend seeking re-election. I don’t intend to serve more than two terms. My role right now is to make sure that we navigate through this turbulent time in the best possible manner. Once this chapter is closed with the arraignment of person or persons on this case I will make my consideration.”