November 28, 2019 / 12:03 PM / 18 days ago

Maltese businessman accuses former top official in murder case: sources

VALLETTA (Reuters) - A prominent Maltese businessman has told police that former government chief of staff Keith Schembri was the mastermind behind the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, two people briefed on the investigation said on Thursday.

A view of a sign depicting Daphne Caruana Galizia during a protest outside the Parliament, following the resignation of government ministers in a widening scandal around an investigation into the murder of the journalist, in Valletta, Malta November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Schembri was arrested on Tuesday in connection with the case. He has not issued any statement since his detention but has previously always denied any connection to the killing of Caruana Galizia, who wrote extensively about corruption.

Schembri’s lawyers were not available for comment on Thursday when contacted by Reuters for comment.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, a close personal friend of Schembri, told reporters he hoped the murder investigation would be wrapped up within “the next few hours”.

The two-year-old investigation has accelerated dramatically this month after fresh evidence was uncovered, leading to the arrest last week of businessman Jorgen Fenech, who was stopped as he tried to leave Malta on his luxury yacht.

According to police and legal sources with direct knowledge of the probe, Fenech is seeking legal immunity in return for testimony that would implicate Schembri and reveal a wide scheme of corruption on the island implicating senior politicians.

Under the law, a pardon can only be issued by the president, on the recommendation of Muscat’s cabinet.

The sources did not indicate whether Fenech had provided any evidence to suggest that Schembri had masterminded Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Neither Fenech nor his lawyers have made any public comment since his arrest.

PRESSURE TO QUIT

Muscat repeatedly dismissed accusations of wrongdoing levelled at his inner circle over the past few years and is now facing growing calls to resign because of his alleged failure to hold friends and colleagues to account.

His tourism minister quit earlier this week while the economy minister suspended himself from the government as the murder probe continued. Both denied involvement in the case that has raised questions about the rule of law in Malta.

“We are calling for (Muscat) to assume responsibility and resign from his leadership, from his premiership, and a new prime minister be appointed,” said Karol Aquilina, an opposition lawmaker and a lawyer for Caruana Galizia’s family.

Muscat has refused to stand down, saying Malta needs stability.

The government has already granted a pardon in the case to Malvin Theuma, the alleged middleman in the plot, who was arrested two weeks ago in a money laundering investigation and immediately offered information on the Caruana Galizia murder.

Slideshow (3 Images)

The journalist was killed by a car bomb on Oct. 16, 2017. Three men were arrested shortly afterwards and are awaiting trial for having allegedly set off the explosion.

Caruana Galizia had revealed the existence of a secret company, 17 Black, owned by Fenech, which was named in emails as being a vehicle for depositing money into the accounts of Panama companies owned by ex-Tourism Minister Mizzi and Schembri.

There is no evidence that money changed hands and Mizzi has said there are no links between him and 17 Black.

Reporting by Stephen Grey and Chris Scicluna; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Jon Boyle

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