Malta was plunged into political turmoil on Tuesday after three politicians close to the prime minister fell on their swords as the investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia gained pace.
In the biggest political fall-out so far since the killing two years ago, the first scalp of the day was Keith Schembri, the government’s chief of staff, followed by Konrad Mizzi, the tourism minister.
Then Chris Cardona, the economy minister, announced he was suspending himself from government until the murder investigation is completed.
On her widely-read blog, Running Commentary, Mrs Caruana Galizia had publicly accused him of visiting a brothel in Germany during an official visit in early 2017, a charge he vehemently denied.
Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi had been under pressure to resign for days because of their alleged financial links to Yorgen Fenech, a business tycoon who was arrested last week on his luxury motor yacht.
Mr Fenech has been described as a “person of interest” in the investigation into the 2017 murder.
Mr Fenech was the owner of a company called 17 Black Ltd which, according to documents uncovered by Malta’s financial regulators in 2015, was due to make payments of up to $2 million to secret Panama-based companies owned by Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi, who once served as Malta’s energy minister.
It is not known whether any payments were made. Both politicians deny any wrongdoing.
Mrs Caruana Galizia was writing about Dubai-based 17 Black in the months before she was blown up by a car bomb as she left her home on the island.
Mr Cardona, the economy minister, was questioned by police on Saturday in connection with the case. He denied any involvement in the killing.
“I was asked whether I had any involvement in the murder, and I answered no,” he told Malta Today newspaper.
As the investigation crept ever closer to Joseph Muscat, the prime minister, he said he had no intention of stepping down.
“My role right now is to ensure the country has stable leadership. My role is to make sure we navigate through this turbulent time," he said. “Whatever people might say, there is no impunity in this country. I would definitely resign if there were any association between myself and the murder.”
Three men are waiting to go on trial for allegedly planting and detonating the bomb that killed the journalist.
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In a recently published book about the murder, Mr Schembri is described as a shrewd businessman and “the mastermind behind Muscat’s political success.”
“He denies wrongdoing but it is hard to see why Schembri needed a shell company in Panama controlled by a shell trust in New Zealand, other than to hide the proceeds of corruption,” wrote Maltese journalist Manuel Delia and former BBC journalist John Sweeney in Murder on the Malta Express.
“Everywhere else in the democratic world, a politician or senior government official accused of owning a shell company in Panama would have been forced to resign. Not in Malta.”
The murder of 53-year-old Mrs Caruana Galizia, who was described as “a one-woman WikiLeaks”, revealed a murky web of sleaze, cronyism and corruption on the island, from online gambling infiltrated by organised crime groups to the sale of Maltese passports to foreigners.
In a statement, her husband and three sons called for Mr Schembri to face prosecution.
“We now urge the Maltese authorities to immediately prosecute Schembri. We urge the authorities to uncover why prime minister Joseph Muscat has protected him and Konrad Mizzi for three years.”
They went on to claim that the failure to prosecute Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi had resulted in the death of their wife and mother.