Malta’s prime minister came under mounting pressure to resign on Friday after a probe into the killing of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia fanned allegations of a corrupt nexus among the political and business elite of the tiny Mediterranean island nation.
Caruana Galizia’s family called on premier Joseph Muscat to step down because of alleged conflicts of interest in the case. Keith Schembri, who resigned as Mr Muscat’s chief of staff this week, was released from police custody on Friday after being questioned in connection with the 2017 murder of the investigative journalist in a car-bomb attack. He has denied any wrongdoing.
“This travesty of justice is shaming our country, ripping our society apart, and it is degrading us,” the Caruana Galizia family said. “We urge the prime minister to step aside and let an unconflicted deputy take over. If the prime minister has the interests of Malta and justice at heart, then he should do so immediately. Our country is more important than his career.”
The developments have unleashed public anger over alleged corruption that critics say became entrenched in Malta under a quarter-century of near-unbroken rule by the conservative Nationalists and has intensified since Mr Muscat’s Labour administration took office in 2013. They have also brought further unwelcome scrutiny of the state of justice in a country that joined the EU 15 years ago.
Crowds of anti-government protesters have rallied through the week outside the historic Auberge de Castille, the baroque building that serves as the prime minister’s office in Valletta, the capital.
Maltese media reported that Mr Muscat was on the verge of stepping down on Friday after a week when the investigation — which appeared to have stalled — embroiled some of his closest political allies.
His resignation would escalate a crisis over allegations of corruption and abuses of power that were partly exposed by Caruana Galizia’s work and then brought to the world’s attention by her murder.
A government spokesperson said Mr Muscat had pledged to see the murder investigation through to a conclusion. He would make announcements in due course, the spokesperson added.
Mr Muscat faced multiple calls to quit from European lawmakers and human rights advocates.
“This swamp of corruption and financial crime must now be brought to justice,” said Sven Giegold, a German Green member of the European Parliament. “Malta needs a fresh start with a renewal of its economic model and political system.”
The European Parliament is due to send an emergency mission to Malta on Monday. One official said the mission could result in MEPs triggering EU sanctions proceedings for violation of the rule of law — mirroring procedures already launched against Hungary and Poland.
Dunja Mijatovic, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog, said she was “seriously concerned by recent allegations of political interference” in the murder probe. She urged Mr Muscat to “refrain from any action which would prevent the investigation from being or being seen as fully independent”.
Harlem Désir, representative on media freedom for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said: “More than ever the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia must be transparent, independent, free of any political interference. All those involved must face justice.”
Earlier on Friday, the prime minister’s cabinet rejected a plan to give a pardon to Yorgen Fenech, a prominent businessman arrested last week, in exchange for information that would allegedly incriminate top government officials. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder has moved quickly after the arrest this month of a suspected middleman in the plot to kill her. Shortly afterwards authorities detained Mr Fenech, whose interests include a large power station concession awarded by the government in 2013, as he attempted to leave Malta on his luxury yacht.
Mr Fenech faces questions over his relationship with Mr Schembri, the former aide to Mr Muscat, and Konrad Mizzi, an ex-energy minister who resigned as tourism minister this week. Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi owned Panamanian companies that expected to receive up to $2m for unspecified services from 17 Black Limited, a Dubai business owned by Mr Fenech, according to a Reuters investigation published last year.
Mr Fenech declined to confirm or deny whether he owned 17 Black, the news agency said. There is no evidence any payments were made.