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Breakthrough in Malta journalist murder case?

Barbara Wesel
November 20, 2019

Maltese police have arrested businessman Yorgen Fenech in connection with the 2017 killing of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The investigation into her murder has been called a "litmus test" for Malta's judiciary.

Police on board a yacht in Malta
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/J. Borg

"We believe he is our man," said blogger and author Manuel Delia after news of Yorgen Fenech's arrest. Delia and two other journalists wrote the book Murder on the Malta Express — Who killed Daphne Caruana Galizia? which details government corruption, money laundering and mafia operations on the Mediterranean island. Of course Fenech, who was arrested at dawn on Wednesday, is "innocent until proven guilty," Delia said — adding that investigative reporters have long been convinced that he is behind the murder of Malta's most famous journalist. Fenech is one of the best-known businessmen in Malta.

Read more: Daphne Caruana Galizia — the woman who 'broke the mold'

Murder shocked Malta, EU

Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb on a country road near her home just over two years ago. The attack caused shock waves far beyond Malta's borders because it was the first time politics were suspected to be the motive behind the murder of a female journalist in the European Union.

Galizia wrote about rampant corruption, and how politicians and oligarchs worked together to turn Malta into a paradise for illegal money transfers, buyable passports, tax evasion and shell companies.

A memorial with flowers and a photo of Daphne Galizia
Galizia was murdered in an October 2017 car bombingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Klimkeit

The European Parliament sent a delegation urging an investigation into the murder. Brussels criticized the pace of the investigation and raised doubts about the integrity of the police and judiciary. In December 2017, three petty criminals were arrested for allegedly placing and detonating the bomb on Galizia's car. The investigation then stalled, despite further intervention from Brussels.

Now, however, the tide seems to be turning.

"The government has understood that the whole world is still interested in this case and it can no longer hide," said Delia. After the Galizia's death, he pledged to continue her work and find her killer, as did her sons and an international group of journalists who regularly report on Maltese corruption as part of the Daphne Project.

Middleman gave up mastermind

In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat promised a pardon to a suspected middleman named Melvin Theuma if he brought evidence in court against whoever had commissioned Galizia's murder. Theuma, known to local authorities as a loan shark, had been arrested with the help of Interpol as part of an international money laundering sting.

Men arrested in connection with Daphne Galizia's murder being escorted by Maltese police
Three men were arrested in December 2017 in connection with Galizia's murderImage: picture-alliance/AP

Apparently fearing for his safety in prison, Theuma demanded a pardon in return for implicating the mastermind behind the Galizia's killing. He is alleged to have tangible evidence against the person who commissioned the murder, including a recording of a conversation between the two and proof of payment. Theuma admitted to having recruited the three criminals said to have attached the bomb to the Gazlia's car and set it off. The three, however, deny the crime.

Early Wednesday morning, the Maltese police prevented what could have been Fenech's attempt to escape on his yacht "Gio." Allegedly, it was Theuma who tipped off the police.

Read more: Malta in the eye of a financial tempest

Who is Yorgen Fenech?

Fenech's family hold shares in hotels, nightclubs, a casino, and the energy and shipping industries, with assets said to be worth several hundred million euros. It became clear last year that Fenech was the owner of 17 Black, a shady Dubai company linked to notorious Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that was involved in secret payments to Maltese Minister of Tourism Konrad Mizzi and Muscat's chief of staff, Keith Schembri. Galizia had written about 17 Black before her death.

The actual connection to the murder case lies in what is probably one of the largest public building projects in Malta — the 2013 construction of the gas-fired Delimara power plant, owned by Siemens, Azerbaijan state energy authority Socar and the Maltese holding company Electrogas, which in turn is owned by Yorgen Fenech.

Galizia obtained leaked emails said to show that contracts for energy production in Delimara cost the Maltese taxpayer millions of euros every year because middlemen systematically siphoned off money for facilitating payments for liquefied natural gas purchases.

Trail leads to the top

Galizia's sons are now pointing a finger at Tourism Minister Mizzi and chief of staff Schembri, both of whom are suspected of having received millions of euros in bribes.

"Fenech's arrest must have political consequences," said Sven Giegold, a member of the European Parliament who was part of the initial delegation from Brussels urging a thorough investigation into Galizia's murder and criticizing corruption and crime on the island. "Mizzi and Schembri should resign," he said, adding that the investigation will be an opportunity for the Maltese judiciary to show how independent it really is.

The EU has repeatedly criticized Malta's government for shortcomings over the rule of law. There is a culture of impunity among the political and financial elites in the country, Giegold said. "Clearing up the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia is a litmus test for the rule of law in Malta. It is high time that whoever was behind this is called to account."