April 17, 2018 / 5:32 PM / 3 months ago

Special Report - The silencing of Malta's anti-corruption campaigner

VALLETTA (Reuters) - He ran towards the burning car barefoot across the field, oblivious to the mud and stones. The explosion had blown the grey Peugeot 108 clear off the road. Now the twisted remains sat ablaze about five metres into the field, a metal pyre of flame and smoke.

Matthew Caruana Galizia could feel the heat on his face and eyes. The fire was making a roaring sound and the car’s horn was blaring. Through the flames he caught sight of a mother and child by the roadside crying and screaming: “What can we do, what can we do?”  

He couldn’t see his own mother, Daphne, whose car it was.

“I looked into the car and there was nothing,” said Matthew. “It was just fire. I expected to see something like the shadow of a person or something, but there was nothing.”

Then he saw her. Parts of her. A leg and other bits of body lay scattered around him in the field. Daphne Caruana Galizia, journalist, blogger and crusader against corruption and cronyism on the island of Malta, had finally been silenced.

That bombing last October did more than kill Daphne, as she was universally known on the island. It ripped open the dark side of Malta, a rocky speck in the Mediterranean that is a full member of the European Union – and a haven for people dealing in online gambling, offshore finance and cryptocurrencies. The brazen assassination and the lawlessness it implies appalled not only Daphne’s friends and family, but also political leaders across Western Europe.

Three men have been charged with her murder. They deny the charges. Police believe the person who ordered the bombing is still at large. Malta’s government told Reuters: “Her murder is being investigated vigorously” and that “police will have whatever resources they need to pursue and prosecute those responsible.”

A Reuters investigation, in collaboration with more than 15 other media groups, including Suddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde and France 2 television, sheds new light on Daphne’s complex character and life, and for the first time pieces together in detail key elements of the plot to kill her. This story is part of the Daphne Project, an investigation coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based group that continues the work of journalists silenced through murder or imprisonment.

For her son Matthew, who spoke extensively to Reuters, the events of that October day remain horribly vivid. He doesn’t know who ordered his mother’s murder, but he does believe, as do some European Union officials, that the nature of Maltese politics and society made her assassination possible. There was a toleration of corruption, he says, that enabled such acts.

Ana Gomes, a member of the European Union parliament who last year led an EU mission to Malta to examine the rule of law and progress on preventing money-laundering, agrees with Daphne’s family. “The culture of impunity in Malta ... fosters corruption, organised financial criminality and state capture,” she said. “And it was that culture that created the conditions for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

“A WITCH”

Daphne was adored by many on Malta, loathed in equal measure by others. For many years she worked as a columnist on leading publications here and knew the island, which has just 430,000 inhabitants, inside out. In 2008 she set up her own blog, Running Commentary, writing in English. It ran political opinions, gossip and investigative pieces about the country’s elite, peppered with caustic allegations against politicians of financial corruption and cronyism. Readers flocked to it; her targets hated it.

She was sometimes a divisive figure, and though she had spent her life on the island, in some ways she felt adrift from her country. Just days before she died, she gave an interview to a researcher from the Council of Europe, a human rights organisation. In excerpts published here for the first time, she described how at times she felt the island’s culture was medieval.

“Look at what they call me most: a witch,” she said, referring to her critics in political and media circles. “I mean, when were women called witches? Pre the age of Enlightenment ... I don’t feel I’m living in a European country.” The island had a peculiar “primitivity,” she said.

Her son Matthew, 32, believes her blog and investigations inflamed a macho hatred among Malta’s male elite of being lampooned by a woman. “These kinds of people would never be able to get over the fact that they were being mocked so publicly by a woman,” he said. “My mother really believed in using humour as a tool to undermine corrupt people, or people who abused their power.”

Over the years she faced verbal and legal retaliation, and occasional physical threats. Faeces were posted through her letterbox. Even before Daphne began her blog in 2008, the family’s collie dog had its throat slit and was left on the doorstep. Then a terrier called Zulu was poisoned. Someone used a shotgun on another collie called Rufus.

“We saw him walking back towards the house covered in blood as my mother was driving us to school,” said Matthew. “The vet put him down.”

Paul, 29, the youngest of Daphne’s three sons, came home late one night and found flames licking up the side of the house. Petrol and car tyres had been placed there and set alight. Daphne and her husband, Peter, were asleep inside, saved by double-glazed security glass that the family had recently installed.

After that, they built a wall around the property to create a compound.

In the Council of Europe interview, Daphne, 53, talked about the pressure she was under, mostly from supporters of her political targets, describing it as “churning, churning nerves all the time.” But Peter said she never mentioned any specific death threats. In recent years, most of the vitriol aimed against her had poured out online.

It was not all one-sided, and Daphne was both uncompromising and contradictory. While she resented photographers following her around, she had few qualms about exposing the private lives of others, including publishing photographs of them.

Prosecutors and police have not commented publicly about any motive for the bombing. Reuters has established that no politician has been interviewed by police in connection with the murder inquiry. After six months of investigation, the police believe her death was not ordered by a politician but perhaps by a gangster whose interests Daphne had threatened as she delved into subjects such as fuel smuggling and money laundering.

A person briefed in detail on the investigation said: “You should avoid the assumption that this was any kind of political conspiracy.”

BARRAGE OF CLAIMS

Daphne’s death inevitably made political waves, if only because the focus of her blog in recent years had been the island’s ruling Labour Party. One object of her ire was Joseph Muscat, who became Labour Party leader the same year Daphne began her Running Commentary blog and who swept to victory in elections in 2013. While Daphne would fire barbs in all directions, she had a life-long suspicion of the Labour movement and she made Muscat and his allies her prime targets.

Through her son Matthew, who worked as a software engineer and data journalist for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, she got knowledge of the “Panama Papers” - thousands of documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm based in Panama. She discovered that two government figures – Keith Schembri, chief of staff, and Konrad Mizzi, energy minister - had used the law firm to set up companies in Panama within days of taking office.

Daphne smelled corruption and conflicts of interest, and in 2016 she began accusing Schembri and Mizzi of holding “asset-concealing structures.”

Schembri and Mizzi have repeatedly said in public that they do not dispute they set up the Panama companies. But they say the companies were simply intended to manage their private wealth.

In another incendiary claim, Daphne alleged that a third Panamanian company was created after Muscat became prime minister and that it belonged to his wife, Michelle. Daphne based that claim on a corporate document she said she saw; but she never published a copy of it, and the claim has not been verified.

Muscat and his wife called the accusation a lie, and said the document must have been a forgery. They asked for a judicial inquiry, which is ongoing, to clear their names.

Joseph Muscat said the allegation about the Panamanian company was “completely false and defamatory.” He added: “I have stated previously that if there was found to be any truth to the allegations I would resign my office with immediate effect.”

When opposition politicians used Daphne’s claims to attack him, Muscat called an election to win a new public mandate. In June last year there was a bitter contest, in which Daphne supported the opposition, but Muscat won and improved his majority.

Muscat felt vindicated and was confident the judicial inquiry would find that Daphne’s allegations about him were unfounded.

In the eyes of Daphne’s family, however, Muscat’s victory reinforced the culture of impunity in which, they say, the police failed to pursue the cases of suspected corruption that Daphne wrote about. Their views echo an EU mission to Malta that in January said the island should reform its “legislative framework to better separate powers” and reform its judiciary and police to strengthen their independence. It also said the government “should start an action programme against corruption and financial crime.”

The police did not respond to a request for comment.

After the last election, Daphne kept up her work, but the pressures on her were growing. Among various legal actions she faced was one arising from a story she published on Jan. 30 last year.

The story alleged that Christian Cardona, the island’s economy minister, had visited a brothel that day in Velbert, a town near Dusseldorf, while on an official trip to Germany. Daphne had cited an anonymous eyewitness, another Maltese customer at the brothel, who said he recognised Cardona. Her blog that day got 547,146 views.

Cardona sued for libel. He told Reuters the story was “fabrication and lies made simply to damage my twenty-year political career.”

As that legal battle loomed, Daphne’s lawyers got a court to order the preservation of Cardona’s mobile phone location records to use in her defence. Meanwhile, Cardona’s lawyers got a court to freeze her bank accounts.

LOOKOUT ON THE HILL

On a ridge southeast of Bidnija stands an old gun emplacement known as the Targa Battery, a relic from fortifications the British built in the 19th century. Nearby lives Charles Sammut, a farmer. Though he was no friend of Daphne’s - she disagreed with his political views - he has played a crucial role in the police investigation into her death.

Sammut reported to police that in the weeks before and on the day of the bombing, a suspicious car – a white Peugeot – had parked near the battery. Close by is a stone wall that both shields you from view and gives a clear line of sight to Daphne’s house and the road leading from it.

At that wall, investigators found a recent cigarette butt on which, police say, was the DNA of a man named Alfred Degiorgio. As he looked across at Bidnija, Degiorgio could have watched every coming and going from Daphne’s family home, which sits on a slope down from the village.

It was a fine, hot day at Daphne’s house, which was called Dar Rihana, meaning the house of the myrtle tree, on Oct. 16 last year. Matthew, who happened to be living with his parents then, woke late.

“I remember it being a very, very quiet day,” he says. “The air was solid, and there was this very bright light streaming through the house.”

The family’s two dogs, Hanno, a Neapolitan mastiff bought as a guard dog, and Toni, an ageing Staffordshire bull terrier, padded around. That morning Daphne published a blog post about Schembri, the prime minister’s chief of staff, and a libel action he was fighting against another politician. She signed off in her usual freewheeling style: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”

Just before 3 p.m. she shut her laptop and prepared to go out. She had arranged a meeting to discuss her frozen bank account. She assumed her phone was tapped, so she wanted to meet a bank official in person.

A man holds up a photo of assassinated anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia during a vigil and demonstration, marking six months since her murder in a car bomb, in Valletta, Malta. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

She left the house, but swiftly returned to pick up a chequebook. “Okay, now I really am going,” she said as she shut the thick oak door and headed for the grey Peugeot 108 parked outside. Matthew, barefoot in the living room, turned back to playing some music.

Anyone near the old gun emplacement could have watched her. Also in view were a series of mobile-phone towers dotted across the landscape.

It is data from those towers that Maltese investigators, aided by a Cellular Analysis Survey Team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, have used to build a case accusing Alfred Degiorgio, his brother George and a man named Vince Muscat of carrying out the killing of Daphne. Muscat is a common name in Malta, and Vince Muscat has no relation to the prime minister of the same surname.

The three suspects were already known to police, and were among alleged crime figures who had been questioned about other violent incidents, including bombings, on the island in recent years, according to lawyers familiar with previous cases involving the men. They had a reputation for “omerta,” staying silent, when questioned, according to the sources.

The two Degiorgio brothers and Vince Muscat remain in custody and have said almost nothing since being arrested. None of them have responded to questions from police. The three men’s lawyers declined to speak to Reuters.

THE “GOD DEVICE”

The first breakthrough came after police ordered Malta’s two main mobile-phone companies to hand over all records of network activity near Bidnija. They looked at data beginning at 6.30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15, when Matthew had driven Daphne’s car home and parked in the gravel lane outside.

In evidence given in court, Keith Arnaud, head of the murder inquiry, said that analysis of this data identified two mobile numbers “of major interest because ... their activity stopped at the moment of the incident.” These numbers, both with the mobile carrier Vodafone, had only been used to send text messages to each other.

Police identified a SIM card, with a number ending 3752, that was active in the Bidnija area until it got a text message at 14:58:55 - the moment the bomb exploded. At that point the SIM disappeared and records of its activity stopped. Police believe this SIM was used to detonate the bomb, which analysis of the debris suggests was placed inside the car under Daphne’s seat.

Based on Vodafone records, police say this trigger SIM card had been slotted not into a mobile phone but into a gadget called a SIM 900A that is sold to hobbyists for controlling domestic devices – such as lights - by text message. Police came to call this gadget the “God device.”

Investigators say they followed a trail from the detonator SIM through phone records that led them to identify the alleged killers.

Police believe a simple text was sent to set off the bomb. That text, they say, came from a SIM card with a number ending 4366 used in a cheap Nokia phone. Like the “God device,” this trigger phone was not registered to any person. It was what is known as a “burner phone” – hard to trace and cheap enough to be thrown away once used.

Even so, there were clues. On the day of the bombing, the police say, the trigger phone was mostly connected to mobile-phone towers that faced the sea. And when it sent the trigger text, the phone was connected to a tower just inside the Grand Harbour of Malta’s capital, Valletta. Near that tower was a CCTV camera monitoring the port, and one of the boats it filmed was a motor yacht named Maya.

At that point, the murder investigation took an unexpected twist: Malta’s spy agency, the Malta Security Service, contacted the police and said it had been monitoring the Maya and could identify a man seen on board. That man, the spy agency said, was George Degiorgio, brother of Alfred Degiorgio, whose DNA was later identified on the cigarette butt found on the ridge overlooking Daphne’s house.

TRIGGER TEXT

It wasn’t unusual for George Degiorgio to be at the harbour in Valletta. He, his brother and Vince Muscat used to hang out at a dilapidated warehouse right on the dockside that had once been a potato store. Police later arrested the men at that warehouse, but on Oct. 16, George Degiorgio, police say, left the harbour aboard the Maya.

He had a Samsung Galaxy phone registered to his name which was being tapped by the spy agency. Records of that phone tap and network data indicated that throughout the day of Daphne’s murder, George’s Samsung Galaxy phone, the trigger phone and another burner phone with a number ending in 8824 were all in the same places as the yacht Maya.

Police then analysed the history of the burner phone 8824 and discovered it was only ever used to connect to two other burner phones, one allegedly used by Alfred Degiorgio, and another allegedly used by Vince Muscat. All three phones had SIM cards purchased in 2016 but only activated on Aug. 19, 2017, three months before Daphne’s death.

Lead investigator Arnaud told the court he had pieced together how the murder was planned and executed. The records of these three burner phones showed their users had regularly visited Daphne’s village in the days before the attacks. “The victim had been followed for weeks,” Arnaud said.

In the early hours of Oct. 16, the phones were active again in Daphne’s village; police believe it was then the bomb was planted. The “God device” attached to the bomb was turned on in the Bidnija area at 1:41 a.m. Police believe that a burner phone which they say was used by Vince Muscat was one of those in the village that night, though they have not made his precise role clear.

At 6:14 a.m, the trigger phone was switched on. At 7:55 a.m, CCTV showed the Maya leaving its moorings in the harbour. The vessel motored northwest, but after lunchtime headed back towards Valletta. At about 2:55 p.m, just after the boat had passed the breakwater, Daphne left her home in Bidnija.

The police allege Alfred Degiorgio, on lookout on the ridge above Bidnija, rang his brother’s burner phone, but the call was swiftly disconnected. Daphne had gone back inside to get the chequebook.

Two minutes later she went outside again. The burner phone that police say Alfred was using on lookout called again, this time for 1 minute and 47 seconds. Police believe that while he talked and described her movements, his brother George, standing on the yacht, pressed “send” on the trigger phone, dispatching the fatal text to the “God device” that in turn detonated the bomb. The explosion must have been “heard live on the call,” Arnaud said in evidence.

TWO BLASTS

Driving up the Bidnija Road at the time was Frans Sant, a 60-year-old farmer, coming back from doing some shopping. He caught sight of a car coming the opposite way which suddenly seemed to brake. There was a bang and a flash.

“It was a small one. It was like a spark. Some debris was blown away from it and I saw her,” Sant said in court.

The explosion appeared to stop the car; there was white smoke. Police experts have yet to explain why the explosives did not fully detonate at first.

“She was still conscious,” Sant said. “And (after) three to four, five seconds, there was the big explosion and she became a ball of fire. She didn’t have time, unfortunately, to escape from the car.”

The car was flung over a small wall into a field. The petrol tank ignited. And when he stepped out of his car, Sant noticed Daphne had been blown apart.

“She was literally into pieces.” He had to stop the traffic to prevent cars running over parts of her, he said.

In the harbour, the Maya headed towards its mooring. George Degiorgio was in a cheerful mood. As recorded by the eavesdropping spies, he called a friend and told him with a laugh: “I caught two big fish today.” At 3:30pm, he texted his wife: “Buy me wine, my love!”

Where the boat was moored, George allegedly tossed his burner phones into the harbour water, and removed the SIM from his personal Samsung Galaxy and tossed that over the side as well. Police later found them on the seabed, along with several other phones.

Arnaud, the head of the murder inquiry, has yet to present any reason in court why the three suspects allegedly killed Daphne.

Most Maltese assume someone other than the three men gave the order for the bombing. Prime Minister Muscat said: “An investigation is ongoing into those who ordered the killing.”

“SO MANY ENEMIES”

Like many others, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando wasn’t surprised when Daphne died. A dentist turned politician, he recalls how he had discussed the possibility of her being murdered with John Rizzo, a former police chief of the island, more than five years ago. They were talking about the number of people she had offended, and Orlando remembers Rizzo saying how difficult it would be to solve such a murder case “because she has so many enemies.” Rizzo did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Orlando, now chairman of the Malta Council of Science and Technology, had been a friend of Daphne until they fell out after he switched his political allegiance from the Nationalist Party to the Labour Party. As a Labour politician, he introduced a law in 2011 to allow divorce in Malta; Daphne, a committed Catholic, had opposed the change, arguing that it would be divisive. She began to attack Orlando frequently in her blog.

“It had not stopped after the divorce campaign, it had not stopped, it became part of my morning ritual, over cornflakes, seeing what she invented about me,” he said.

Her articles were sometimes abusive and erroneous. Among her insults, she called him a “physical and moral midget, a consummate failure in life, love, dentistry and politics.” Her remarks were “worthy of a Pulitzer,” Orlando said with heavy irony.

Friends of Daphne say that was just her scornful style. But Orlando and others in the Labour Party found some of her coverage intolerable and are furious she is now portrayed by some as a fearless reporter and anti-corruption martyr. The flaws in her work and the sheer number of people Daphne attacked have left an atmosphere of bitterness and confusion.

Despite Daphne’s attacks on him, Prime Minister Muscat tweeted his dismay and anger at her death on the day of the bombing: “This is a spiteful attack on a citizen and freedom of expression. I will not rest until justice is done.” An aide said the killing has brought Muscat and the government only trouble, as it could give false credence to some of her erroneous claims. “We could see this tidal wave coming,” he said.

Schembri, the prime minister’s chief of staff who was suing Daphne for libel, said: “Daphne Caruana Galizia made frequent allegations against me, my colleagues and numerous other individuals ... But the fact of those disagreements does nothing to diminish my horror and disgust at her murder. Her murder is a tragedy, and an evil act.”

Economy minister Cardona, who was also suing Daphne for libel, denies any involvement in her death. Daphne’s family recently informed investigators that several witnesses had told them Cardona was a regular visitor to a village bar where the Degiorgio brothers were also customers. The bar owner declined to comment. An investigating magistrate overseeing the murder inquiry did not respond to questions.

In a statement to Reuters, Cardona said: “Like most seasoned criminal lawyers in Malta, I know who some of the suspects in the case are. The particular pub you mention welcomes patrons from all walks of life, including other politicians. I do not, however, recall having any discussions with any of these individuals, and have definitely never had any meetings with them. Anything else is baseless rumour and speculation.”

Supporters of Daphne hold a vigil on the 16th of every month in a square in central Valletta. Just opposite is Malta’s central courthouse. There the three suspects have sat in silence over recent months during “compilation of evidence” hearings, which may take as long as two years. Only after that process would prosecutors prepare an indictment that could lead to trial by jury.

Arnaud continues to lead a team of 12 investigators, with about six working full-time on the case. The inquiry continues to examine contacts of the alleged killers to solve the question of who might have paid them to carry out the murder.

Daphne’s family are angry that detectives have yet to question people she was investigating to probe potential motives for her death. On the other side, police are dismayed that the family has not handed over Daphne’s laptop, which investigators believe could hold clues to her killing.

Daphne’s sister, Corinne Vella, said Daphne would never have handed her laptop over to the police. “It was about sources,” she said. The family fear that if they handed over the laptop, sensitive information would be at risk of leaking.

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Reported by Stephen Grey; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing By Richard Woods

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