A scandal-dogged probe into the murder of investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia has damaged relations between Malta and the EU, the head of a European Parliament fact-finding delegation said Tuesday.
The urgent mission of seven MEPs to the Mediterranean island follows an escalation in the murder case and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's decision to resign over what critics have called a botched investigation.
"Cooperation in the EU is based on trust and I thought this was very evident to everybody, but that trust has been very seriously damaged," Dutch MEP Sophie in't Veld told journalists after meeting Muscat.
"I am not coming out of this meeting with more confidence," she said.
The outgoing prime minister has been accused of obstructing justice by protecting political allies and aides. Last week his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi resigned.
"The problem is not only between the PM and Maltese people. It's also a problem between Malta and the EU," In't Veld said.
Caruana Galizia, a mother of three described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", was blown up in a car bomb attack near her home in October 2017. She was known for exposing cronyism and sleaze within the country's political and business elite.
Three men are facing trial for carrying out the assassination, but who ordered the murder remains a mystery.
- 'Tense and cold' meeting -
The European Parliament said it would examine doubts about the judiciary's independence and allegations of corruption.
A delegation member, German Green Sven Giegold, described the meeting with Muscat as "tense and cold".
"None of us understand why he doesn't step down immediately," Giegold told AFP by phone. "He doesn't give a good reason, he just says that someone has to conduct state affairs. But the state is already in chaos!"
Also on Tuesday, two independent experts with the United Nations Human Rights Council, David Kaye and Agnes Callamard, called for an independent investigation.
"The past week's developments in Malta show widespread public demand for accountability," Kaye and Callamard said in a statement.
"The resignation of Mr Muscat, which takes effect in January, must mark the start, and certainly not the end, of genuine accountability for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia."
Caruana Galizia had alleged that Schembri and Mizzi were involved in corruption, claims both men have denied.
Tycoon Yorgen Fenech, arrested as he tried to leave on his yacht, has been charged with complicity in the murder.
Fenech has claimed Schembri was the "real mastermind" behind the killing, according to police sources.
Schembri was arrested last week but released two days later, fuelling accusations of a cover-up.
- 'Extremely concerned' -
In't Veld said Schembri's release was "a point of concern".
The delegation was "extremely concerned that somebody whose name pops up in so many different cases is free," she said.
Caruana Galizia's family has long pushed for Muscat's resignation, alleging that he has protected those around him.
On Tuesday, Caruana Galizia's sister, Corinne Vella, told AFP in an interview that a major flaw of the criminal justice system in Malta was that "too much power is concentrated in the hands of the prime minister."
Separation of powers in Malta did not exist, she said, citing the fact that the judge presiding over Fenech's case has family connections to those implicated in the affair.
"This is completely intolerable," Vella said.
One of Caruana Galizia's sons, Andrew, said on Twitter he suspected Muscat had protected his chief of staff Schembri for so long because he was "waiting to see whether (he) would be successful in covering up my mother's assassination".
Only once "it was clear he failed", Schembri was pushed out, he said.