The following is the seventh part of a series first published in Italian as a concluding chapter of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Un Omicidio di Stato (Strade Blu Mondadori, 2020), the Italian edition of Murder on the Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia(MidSea Books, 2019 and Silvertail Books, 2019).

Hurry Up and Kill Her (Part 7)

The following morning Malta woke up to another sign that Joseph Muscat’s days were numbered. Cabinet ministers were, under strict condition of anonymity, briefing on the goings on during the cabinet meeting of the previous night. In most other democracies this would seem ordinary. But the frenzied and fanatic support enjoyed by Joseph Muscat among Labour Party followers was up to that point an impossibly risky environment in which to express dissent, even anonymously.

Now ministers were telling reporters they saw no reason to think anyone apart from Keith Schembri could have instructed Yorgen Fenech to pin the murder on Chris Cardona. They saw no godly reason why Keith Schembri would be released by the police without charge. In spite of the fact that they stood by Joseph Muscat when he announced Cabinet’s decision to rule out immunity for Yorgen Fenech they wanted to make it clear that they did not share Joseph Muscat’s persistent confidence in his former chief of staff.

They still needed to tread carefully. Any hint of open rebellion would spell political doom. As protesters gathered in Valletta to call for Joseph Muscat’s resignation, Labour Party supporters gathered in their thousands a couple of kilometres away cheering their party on outside its headquarters in Ħamrun. Konrad Mizzi, who had just resigned in disgrace, went to one such gatherings to be photographed being hugged, kissed and cheered on by fanatics for whom Labour could do no wrong.

One of the ministers ‘anonymously’ briefing the press to ensure he was perceived as distant from Joseph Muscat was Chris Fearne, deputy prime minister and minister for health. Other ministers would tell the press how Chris Fearne warned Joseph Muscat during that marathon meeting of cabinet: ‘Either you resign,’ Chris Fearne is believed to have told Joseph Muscat, ‘or I will’. The gauntlet was thrown and, to avoid humiliation, Joseph Muscat had finally, after hours of bickering, promised his ministers he would find a dignified way of resigning soon.

Large protests calling for Joseph Muscat to resign continued that weekend. People didn’t know the prime minister had already decided to quit. But they felt that he would definitely stay on if they didn’t keep up the pressure.

On Sunday 1 December the largest of all the gatherings, probably a crowd of 25,000 people, chocked Republic Street in Valletta. After the crowds went home, the prime minister’s office declared Joseph Muscat would be delivering an address to the nation on TV that evening.

In spite of the late announcement, there was nothing spontaneous about the obviously well-rehearsed, tele-prompted and pre-recorded “address”. The setting was refined, even ornate, more fitting for a Queen’s Christmas message than the resignation of a prime minister leaving office in disgrace.

Joseph Muscat expressed no regret. He didn’t even try to justify his actions, blame others, protest his innocence, accept that he may have been naïve to trust his friends or complain of having been betrayed. Instead he said that he had decided he would leave office around the time that he was, before he first came to power. This was but another chapter in his grand personal career plan.

That was hardly credible. Elected on the back of the largest majorities recorded in Maltese history he quit his first term a year early and he was now announcing his resignation short of the half way mark of his second term.

Joseph Muscat would not leave suddenly. He announced instead that he would stay on for another six weeks while the Labour Party chose his successor and would hand over power on 12 January.

His decision to cling on for another six weeks was never fully explained. Protests continued over the Christmas period demanding Joseph Muscat’s immediate departure. He was in a position to continue to interfere with the evidence, protesters claimed, and Labour Party members should have the serenity of choosing their next leader – and therefore the next prime minister – without Joseph Muscat’s dark shadow dimming the proceedings.

Indeed, immediately Joseph Muscat announced his resignation, his deputy Chris Fearne announced he would challenge for the succession. For some time, no-one else stepped up until Robert Abela, a backbench MP, said he would volunteer to be the underdog in the race. He was far less established than Chris Fearne and looked like a far less likely contender. But in the last few years he had been Joseph Muscat’s legal adviser. Joseph Muscat projected an image of neutrality in the leadership race. But he made sure everyone understood he was backing Robert Abela. Joseph Muscat’s wife Michelle, she of the million-dollar bung from Azerbaijan, phoned Labour councillors encouraging them to vote for her husband’s favourite.

She did that in between a series of whirlwind trips with her husband and children during the supposedly lame-duck caretaker weeks of Joseph Muscat’s last six weeks at the Auberge de Castille. With every plane they caught the country fully expected them not to come back. At one point all four were seen in First Class seats on an Emirates flight to Dubai. It turned out to be a three-day trip with flight tickets that were estimated to cost about half of Joseph Muscat’s officially declared income that year.

While Joseph Muscat prepared his exit, he completed his final political win undermining the prospects of Chris Fearne.

During the leadership campaign dead-cert Chris Fearne promised a clean break with the past, a reckoning with the ‘mistakes’ of Joseph Muscat’s government, zero tolerance to corruption. That wasn’t what card-carrying Labour Party supporters wanted to hear. Robert Abela’s message of “continuity” was rather closer to their desire not to have anything to apologise for. By 12 January the tide had turned. Robert Abela was not only Joseph Muscat’s first choice. Robert Abela became the Labour Party members’ final choice.

Upon Robert Abela’s election Joseph Muscat walked down the steps of the Auberge de Castille accompanied by his wife through a guard of honour of jubilant staffers. Six weeks earlier he rushed down the same steps in the middle of the night chased down by Paul Caruana Galizia armed with an egg. Now he was leaving in a stage-managed triumph as if this was a hand-over of power willed solely by him. Instead of a new leader scrambling to fix the mess he had just inherited, Robert Abela was instead projected as Joseph Muscat’s dauphin, a new face for an old dynasty.

Joseph Muscat, it seemed, had found his Gerald Ford to his Richard Nixon. His resignation would quench the thirst for justice but his successor would protect him from any further consequence.

It seemed impossible that Joseph Muscat would find a way of looking good with all the evidence that was now pouring out of the courts.

The case against Alfred and George Degiorgio and Vincent Muscat had gone to trial in October just before Melvyn Theuma’s arrest. Preliminary hearings started and they were expected to go on for a year before a jury would be allowed in to try the case.

But with Melvyn Theuma on the witness stand the state finally had an eyewitness to corroborate all the technical evidence based on the phone locations of the assassins. Prosecutors were nervous about relying exclusively on technical evidence. There was always the risk of a jury feeling uncertain with all the ‘alternative facts’ a defence against techie mumbo jumbo could cough up.

The pre-trial stage of evidence was reopened and Melvyn Theuma testified how he hired the Degiorgios providing details of how he met them, paid them, supplied them and chased them to do the deed.

The real court-room drama however came out of the evidence Melvyn Theuma gave in the pre-trial hearings against Yorgen Fenech.