Within 24 hours Robert Abela twice exceeded his authority as prime minister, to protect his political interest and the personal interest of his predecessor. The personal interests of Joseph Muscat and the political interests of Robert Abela are one and indivisible. If Joseph Muscat is personally indicted for crimes or made responsible for state failure under his watch, Robert Abela becomes politically responsible for protecting him in all this time. Robert Abela has no choice but to go in deeper.
Consider how Robert Abela is insisting whenever he’s challenged about the continued membership of Joseph Muscat in his parliamentary group, that the former prime minister “is not being investigated”. This categorical statement cannot simply be based on what is in the public domain.
What we have in the public domain is the statement in open court by the investigating officer from the police’s murder squad that he interviewed Joseph Muscat in connection with the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia under caution. What we also have is Joseph Muscat’s own account of what the police told him behind closed doors, that he’s not being investigated.
On that basis alone no one can conclude with anything near certainty that Joseph Muscat is not being investigated.
That means that Robert Abela’s confidence in his own statement must rely on information obtained directly from the investigation. That’s information he should not have. He is not a police officer and the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia has a direct bearing on the conduct of his parliamentary colleagues. A prime minister should not stick his nose in any criminal investigation but especially not in this one.
Consider that we are learning in open court how damaging Joseph Muscat’s interference in this investigation has already been. He took briefings from police officers which ended up in the hands of the people the police wanted to and eventually charged with murder. That we know for a fact. We’ve also heard witnesses say Joseph Muscat went further: actively discussing evidence the police was not in possession of with people against whom the evidence would need to be used.
We’ve heard that and Joseph Muscat has been interviewed under caution about it.
This makes the prime minister’s remarks about the status of Joseph Muscat a veritable intervention and interference in the conduct of the criminal investigation. We were promised last January this would not happen anymore. We were told a new police commissioner would be chosen without direct government interference to ensure the police’s independence.
And yet, just as in Lawrence Cutajar’s time, the police commissioner is silent while the prime minister assures us his buddies have no case to answer.
This sort of abuse of power should be a matter for the public independent inquiry into the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. It doesn’t fit properly into the criminal investigation, at least into the people charged so far, but it is a very pertinent matter when addressing the question straight out of the inquiry’s terms of reference: is the state doing what it should to ensure justice in this case?
But Robert Abela is also interfering into the inquiry itself. He gave comments to the press now saying that by the deadline he has imposed – 15 December – the inquiry will be able to interview all relevant witnesses. He reminded the judges on the inquiry board they taught him in university that judicial proceedings should only hear relevant witnesses and judicial process should not be interminable in any case.
This is wrong on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to start. Still, I’ll try.
First, Robert Abela is very publicly imposing on the inquiry his view on what is and what is not relevant. That is not for him to decide. He is entitled to a view, as we all are, and at a stretch one can argue that he is entitled to express it though in his role as prime minister of the government, the performance of which is being investigated by this inquiry, he would do better to shut up.
But he’s doing more than expressing his clumsy view. He is exercising his executive power to limit the inquiry to a short amount of time in which to rank the witnesses it wishes to interview, leaving out relevant witnesses merely because at face value they might seem less relevant than others.
Second, the terms of reference of the inquiry expressly require the board to roam outside the narrow scope of the question “who killed Daphne”. This is an inquiry into state failure before and after the killing. It is an inquiry into the structural causes, that are deeper than the narrow motive of the crime. It is for the criminal investigation to establish motive by understanding why Yorgen Fenech might be annoyed, worried, angry or disturbed to learn Daphne was in possession of leaks from the Electrogas deal. But it’s for the independent inquiry to establish how corruption in the Electrogas deal was possible and how and why it was covered up for as long as it did, even up to now.
Third, this is not a judicial process. Comparing it with one because of appearances – judges presiding and convening in a court room – is unfair, and to use Robert Abela’s favourite consideration today, irrelevant. This is a fact-finding mission. And finding facts should be allowed to last as long as it takes to find them.
Since when has Robert Abela been bothered with how long it takes for investigations in this country to get anywhere. Magistrates and police officers have had evidence about the Panama Papers for over 4 years. I never heard Robert Abela imposing deadlines. Nor will I. For the same reasons that he’s so keen to stop the Daphne inquiry: the inconvenience its continuation would cause him and his friends in and of the government.
As with the statement about Joseph Muscat not being the subject of a police investigation this is another outrage of a government that shuts down independent agents and institutions in this country when their work becomes an inconvenience to it.
The inquiry has been appointed under the Inquiries Act which means that at law the prime minister is entitled to impose these deadlines. This is the sort of discretion that since Joseph Muscat, our two prime ministers have been happy to abuse to serve their own interests. Malta’s failure to have a proper legislative framework for an independent investigation of its government’s conduct is being exploited by the prime minister without regard to the higher principle in law: the fundamental human right to life that was denied terminally when Daphne was killed and continues to be denied now with this abusive intervention.
Just because the prime minister has the legal power to shut down the inquiry, does not mean he should. The problem is with the legal power. This is like the legal power Joseph Muscat had to appoint his cronies as judges. He did have the power but using it still amounted to anti-democratic abuse.
Robert Abela stepped out of line twice, both times out of fear that the truth about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia would cause him and his government problems. It is supremely ironic that were the independent inquiry to be allowed to work without hindrance it would also have to investigate why Robert Abela is trying to stop it. That may feel metaphysical. But the simple reality is that the inquiry is bound to establish whether the state has allowed justice for Daphne to happen. Stopping the inquiry before time is one way that justice is being denied.
Maybe taller. Maybe younger. Maybe more muscular. But this show is still run by a Joseph Muscat.