There’s some confusion about whether or when the Panama Papers inquiry was concluded. Jason Azzopardi said it was. The PN asked the Attorney General to publish it. The Attorney General said they hadn’t got it.  Perhaps the fact that we’re on the eve of an election might have dampened the enthusiasm of the Pony Express.

At some point the content of the inquiry, or at least its conclusions, will properly hit the news. And then we won’t be thinking about how we got to that point. We’ll be thinking about where we’d go from there.

It’s useful to remember how we got to the point of having an inquiry done. Because it wasn’t easy. It’s a story in itself that needs to be remembered as a lesson for future battles against corruption.

In this piece yesterday I recalled how we learned about the Panama Papers and for the longest time the police did nothing about it. You can read that piece or, for the purposes of this discussion, remember that by April 2016 the Panama Papers had confirmed Daphne Caruana Galizia’s earlier reporting about Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.

By July 2017 the general election had come and gone and Joseph Muscat was at the beginning of his second term. Simon Busuttil had announced he would not stay on as PN leader after his successor is chosen. That transition would be completed in September 2017 but Busuttil was not going to be an idle lame duck on his way out. He was still Opposition Leader and, as he would have put it at the time, he meant “to finish what he started”.

14 July 2017: Simon Busuttil, assisted by Jason Azzopardi, would use a largely unknown, probably never used provision in the law, introduced several years before under a Nationalist administration, that gave private citizens a right previously reserved to the police. Busuttil asked a magistrate to open an inquiry into the Panama Papers revelations about Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.

Inquiries are not investigations in the sense you would expect the police to conduct. They are rather a supplement to the powers of the police providing the safety of judicial independence and judicial oversight to the collation and preservation of evidence that may be used in the prosecution of someone accused of a crime. When the police become aware of a serious crime they let a magistrate know. The magistrate opens an inquiry and hires the first experts to collect evidence. The police go on with their job. They don’t need to wait for the magistrate to be ready to go to the prosecutor and press charges. But they can if they want to, especially if they’re not worried that the passing of time could make prosecution harder.

In this case, in the crimes which many believed have occurred because of what they saw published in the Panama Papers, the police did bugger all. So Busuttil asked for an inquiry because the police failed to do even that much. Within less than two weeks a magistrate agreed to launch an inquiry.

The suspects – yep, Schembri, Mizzi, the usual suspects – appealed the magistrate’s decision. The question of whether the inquiry should start or not went to the superior courts. This is now August 16th, 2017. Judge Antonio Mizzi presiding.

Simon Busuttil asked Antonio Mizzi to recuse himself from hearing this case. Why? Because Antonio Mizzi’s wife was a Labour Party MEP and activist. His judgement in such a highly political case could not be relied upon to be impartial, or at the very least to be seen to be impartial. Antonio Mizzi refused to recuse himself.

Simon Busuttil now needed to challenge Antonio Mizzi’s refusal to recuse himself.

While he’s waiting for a decision on that question, the path of history takes a horrible turn. Daphne Caruana Galizia is killed in October. By the following April, 2018, we get news reports about the link between a Dubai company called 17 Black and Mizzi and Schembri’s Panama companies. The former was due to pay money to the latter.

Busuttil is this time not going to wait for the police. He’s no longer Opposition Leader but that doesn’t stop him. He pairs up with MEP David Casa and they file to ask for an inquiry into the 17 Black case. The magistrate disagrees but that isn’t because 17 Black is not worth investigating. It’s rather because the link to the Panama Papers is so close that it should be part of the Panama Papers inquiry.

What inquiry? The one that was ordered the previous year on the back of Busuttil’s first application but was now in limbo because of the suspects’ appeals and because of Antonio Mizzi’s refusal to recuse himself from hearing those appeals.

That deadlock would break in July 2018. The Constitutional Court agrees that Antonio Mizzi cannot possibly preside over a fair hearing. The Court orders his replacement. Would that settle that? You wish.

The state appeals and the Constitutional Court hearing the appeal overturns the first decision and orders that Antonio Mizzi is allowed to stay right where he was and hear the appeal against the decision to have an inquiry commenced. If you’re confused, sit down and I’ll draw you a picture.

This was October 2019. The decision of keeping Antonio Mizzi in place was by now moot. The case came back to Mizzi’s docket on the eve of his retirement. He could gloat but he could not hear the case.

That wasn’t necessarily good news for Busuttil’s prospects of getting the inquiry going. From Antonio Mizzi’s court the case went to Giovanni Grixti’s. Something about frying pans and fire. Indeed, by January 2019 hope of an inquiry into the Panama Papers, now wilfully ignored by the police for nearly 3 years was frustrated by Grixti’s judgement. I paraphrase, but Grixti basically ruled that since Busuttil had not actually proved the guilt of Mizzi and Schembri anything he said in his request for an inquiry to look into allegations of their wrongdoing amounted to no more than speculation.

This was a general absurdity of the first order. How can you prove a crime when you’re merely asking that it is investigated? How is proving the case an entry requirement to making an allegation that there had been one? You could debate that until you’re blue in the face but Busuttil’s 2-year campaign to have the Panama Papers looked into by a magistrate had just reached a dead end.

Most people would have given up by now. Two months after Grixti’s mad ruling Busuttil started again from scratch. It is now March 2019. The previous October, thanks to Reuters, we found out who the owner of 17 Black was: Yorgen Fenech, in case you’ve been living on the moon.

That amounted to new information. It was really information that the police should have found in investigations that ought to have commenced within 2 hours of Daphne clarifying what she was on about when she wrote about lambs and hats three years earlier. She would be alive to read the court coverage of the prosecution of the perpetrators she exposed if the police moved their corrupt butts. That’s what the police are for, to follow the trail of suspected crimes, verify that the crimes have occurred, identify the perpetrators and charge them in court. You wish.

Instead, Daphne had to be killed, and the professional indignation that followed that mobilised the journalistic resources of the leading news organisations of the world to do what Lawrence Cutajar wouldn’t be able or be interested to attempt.

This new piece of information (the identity of the owner of 17 Black) was added to the evidence Busuttil had first filed in 2017 and in March 2018 he again applied to have an inquiry commenced.

The next day Repubblika did exactly the same, more on principle than anything else. It was a way of protesting (and defying) Giovanni Grixti’s decision from two months before. It was a way of daring the suspects who had their way the first time, to appeal a fresh ruling to have an inquiry into their conduct started.

It was also a way of asserting this right that the law grants private citizens, not just Leaders of Opposition, to ask for the courts to interfere when the police just won’t bother. This was a time when leaders of opposition displayed a remarkable lack of enthusiasm for pursuing judicial complaints that could concern Yorgen Fenech. Much later, from Yorgen Fenech’s phone, we’d find out why.

So Repubblika wasn’t going to wait for Leaders of Opposition of varying degrees of enthusiasm for the rule of law before it would act. It’s request for an inquiry was stapled to Simon Busuttil’s and in April 2018 the applications were accepted.

Then something interesting happened. This new Panama Papers application joined another inquiry that neither applicant (Busuttil or Repubblika) had any clue was already underway. The previous September, 2018, an inquiry into 17 Black had already kicked off. It should eventually become clear who started that one. It’s quite likely the police did. Strange, I know. Facts can be sometimes.

That then was April 2019 when the inquiry that appears to have reach an important milestone more than 5 years later properly kicked off. No inquiry is a full-time job for a magistrate. She will have been running dozens of other inquiries all the while she would be hearing cases in the courtroom. So just by saying it took 5 years, does not mean that there’s 5 years’ worth of work in it. It’s a bit like dog years. It’s 5 of the interminable years in the Maltese justice system.

But here we are, perhaps on the eve of charges being handed down to the crooks who made a plan to enrich themselves and started rolling that plan out within hours of coming to office in 2013. It will take years to secure convictions. But looking back at how far we’ve come it’s reasonable to keep in mind that though its pace is slow, the gait of justice is inexorable.