Top Malta politicians quit as probe into slain reporter widens

Matthew Xuereb with Ella Ide in Rome
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Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in October 2017 after exposing high-level corruption in Malta

Two high-ranking politicians in Malta's government resigned on Tuesday, with a third "suspending himself" in the biggest political fallout to date from a widening probe into the brutal murder of investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The resignations of Keith Schembri, the chief of staff to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi heaped pressure on the government over its handling of Caruana Galizia's car bomb assassination in 2017.

"Murderers!" chanted hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament, with some throwing eggs at Muscat, who has been accused of impeding justice by protecting his closest allies.

Jeering demonstrators shouted "Mafia!" at the prime minister as he was whisked away by a large group of bodyguards.

Sources told AFP that Schembri had been called in for questioning by police after being fingered by the main suspect in the case, prominent businessman Yorgen Fenech.

Fenech, who was arrested on his yacht last week as he tried to leave the country, has requested immunity to reveal what he knows. The mogul was released on bail on Tuesday.

Investigators suspect Schembri may have tipped Fenech off, sparking the failed getaway bid, Maltese media reported.

Muscat refused to say what prompted Schembri's decision to resign, telling reporters it was premature to speculate.

Hours later, Mizzi told journalists it was his "duty" to step down to allow Muscat's government to complete its term.

In another blow to the government on Tuesday, Economy Minister Chris Cardona's office said he was "suspending himself with immediate effect from his position as minister, pending the investigations".

Opposition leader Adrian Delia told parliament that Muscat's position was "untenable, because the only decisions he can take are to protect those around him".

- 'Cover-up' -

Caruana Galizia, a popular journalist and blogger described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", became known for exposing cronyism and sleaze within the country's political and business elite.

She had alleged that Schembri -- who served as Muscat's chief of staff since 2013 -- and Mizzi had been involved in corruption, claims both men have denied.

Separately, Caruana Galizia had also reported that Cardona had visited a German brothel while on official government business. He had been suing her over the claim at the time of her death, according to Maltese media.

Caruana Galizia's murder sparked outrage and protests in the Mediterranean island. Her son Matthew tweeted Tuesday that Muscat "simply cannot be trusted to not obstruct justice".

The prime minister, however, insisted he "never turned a blind eye to impropriety".

"What is happening with the recent developments shows that whatever people might say or think, the institutions are working," he added.

"I would definitely resign if there were any association between myself and the murder."

But Caruana Galizia's son Andrew said "evidence continues to emerge... that the most powerful figure in the Maltese government had a hand in" the murder of his mother, and "used his position to cover it up".

He said that Schembri was "the first name we gave to the police two years ago".

- 'Urgent questions' -

Much of Caruana Galizia's work related to what the 2016 Panama Papers data leak revealed about high-level corruption in Malta, including connections between politicians and a Dubai company called 17 Black.

Leaked emails related to the Panama Papers appeared to show that companies owned by Schembri and Mizzi stood to receive payments from 17 Black, later found to be owned by tycoon Fenech.

The decision to give immunity to Fenech, whose business interests span the energy to tourism sectors, is still pending.

His detention followed that of a middleman in the murder, Melvin Theuma, who on Tuesday was granted immunity to talk.

Although three men face trial for carrying out the murder, the mastermind has never been identified.

Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday the "financial interests" of Muscat's cabinet presented a "serious possibility of a conflict of interest" and warned the PM's decision to be the sole person to speak to the media about the case was worrying.

The Council of Europe's special rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt, appointed in 2018 to monitor the investigation, said Tuesday's developments raised "urgent questions" for the prime minister.

"If the Panama Papers had been investigated and Mr Schembri and Dr Mizzi been asked to resign three years ago, would Daphne Caruana Galizia still be alive today?" he tweeted.