Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is fighting for his political life after his chief of staff and two ministers dramatically resigned Tuesday evening over their links to the 2017 murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Caruana Galizia, a renowned investigative reporter, was killed when a car bomb exploded near her home in October 2017, and a series of recent arrests have drawn attention to the role that members of Muscat’s inner circle might have played in her murder.
On Tuesday, Muscat’s chief aide Keith Schembri quit and then hours later was arrested by police, who questioned him about allegations from a Maltese businessman that he was a co-conspirator in the murder of Caruana Galizia, the Times of Malta reported Wednesday.
The information on Schembri, who has run the prime minister’s office since 2013, was provided by Yorgen Fenech, who was arrested last week during a dramatic raid on his yacht. Fenech is believed to have provided the information in exchange for a pardon.
The police have also arrested Adrian Vella, Fenech’s doctor, who is suspected of passing messages to Schembri.
The police have 48 hours to interrogate the pair before they must charge or release them.
The arrest of Schembri will only add to the pressure on Muscat, after Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi also resigned Tuesday, saying it was “the right thing to do at this moment in time.”
Mizzi’s resignation was quickly followed by that of the Economy Minister Chris Cardona, who police questioned about the murder on Saturday. Cardona said he was suspending himself, saying he felt “duty-bound to take this step in the national interest.”
All three denied any wrongdoing.
The shock resignations, coming in quick succession, have put huge pressure on Muscat, who opposition lawmakers greeted with shouts of “mafia” when he entered the Maltese parliament on Tuesday.
The chamber descended into chaos, with Simon Busuttil, a former leader of the PN party, shouting: “You killed her with corruption. Do none of you have a conscience? You exploded her.”
Things got worse when Mizzi appeared shortly after announcing his resignation. “Shame on you, you’re corrupt, what are you doing here?” Beppe Fenech Adami, a PN lawmaker, screamed.
Outside the parliament, Muscat was bundled into his car as angry protesters — a rare sight in Malta — shouted “assassins,” “thieves” and “robbers.” Among those calling for justice was Caruana Galizia’s sister Helene Asciak, who ran behind the vehicle before breaking down in tears.
Muscat faces significant pressure from opposition politicians and European leaders, who are calling for him to step back and allow the judicial process to run its course. He is also facing pressure from within his own party. Muscat’s deputy, Chris Fearne, said the damage done to Malta’s reputation by this scandal is “almost irreparable.”
Back in 2016, Caruana Galizia used documents leaked in the Panama Papers to show that Schembri and Mizzi had become the beneficiaries of secretive Panama shell companies shortly after assuming office.
The revelations led to a snap general election in 2017, but Muscat and the Labour Party were returned to government in a landslide victory. But Caruana Galizia continued her investigations into high-level corruption — and five months later she was dead.
The current turmoil was sparked by the pardoning of Melvin Theuma, a suspected middleman in the murder who was granted immunity in return for information about the case. Local media reports claim Theuma possesses audio recordings linked to the killing.
In July, three people were formally charged with Caruana Galizia’s murder, but police investigations continue in a bid to root out who ordered the assassination.
“We’re finally starting to see some progress in the investigation into Daphne’s murder,” Corinne Vella, the sister of Caruana Galizia, told the BBC. “It’s welcome, it’s important, but it’s very far long overdue. To us, Daphne’s death has always been linked to her work, and we’ve maintained all along that justice for Daphne means justice for her murder but also justice for all her stories, because to us they were connected.”
Cover: A woman holds a picture of slain investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizi as people gather to honor her death in the same spot and at the same time when she was murdered one year ago, in Malta, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Caruana Galizia, who had probed money-laundering and corruption in the Mediterranean island nation, was killed when a bomb destroyed her car on Oct. 16, 2017. She was 53. (AP Photo/John Borg)