More than 100 witnesses testified before the public inquiry that was set up to look into whether the state could have prevented Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Times of Malta continued to uncover fresh insights into the murder plot, followed up on Caruana Galizia’s investigations and continued to cover the fall-out from the assassination.
2020 started with a bang, with revelations that former deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta, formerly responsible for overseeing homicide investigations, had a close personal relationship with the main suspect.
Times of Malta reported how Valletta had travelled abroad with Fenech to watch football matches when the businessman had already been identified as a person of interest in the murder case.
Shortly afterwards, self-confessed murder middleman- turned-state witness Melvin Theuma’s secret recordings started being played out in court. The recorded conversations are among the most important pieces of evidence against Fenech and shed light on the alleged inner workings of the murder plot.
The audio clips also point to the possible involvement of third parties, most notably Keith Schembri, claims the former OPM chief of staff rejects.
Then, in February, the criminal court was told how a phone retrieved from the seabed after the arrests of the three suspected hitmen contained just one phone number: former minister Chris Cardona’s. The revelation gives further credence to the theory that more than one person may have masterminded the car bombing.
A few weeks later and another bombshell: Times of Malta exposed how former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar held secret meetings with Edwin Brincat, a close associate of Theuma, prior to the middleman’s arrest.
The meetings happened without the knowledge of the police team tasked with investigating the case, sparking concerns he had leaked information about the murder probe.
Then, suddenly, the pandemic hit Malta’s shores, bringing court sittings to a halt and temporarily shifting journalists’ attention to the emerging public health emergency.
Fast forward to May and eyebrows were raised when Charles Mercieca, a prosecutor at the Attorney General’s office, swapped sides and joined Fenech’s defence team.
The move prompted an ethics investigation by a former chief justice and outrage from the Caruana Galizia family, who questioned whether he was privy to sensitive details of the prosecution’s case against Fenech.
That same month Fenech’s legal team argued that the suspect’s rights had been breached when the government shut down the courts in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Although a judge agreed that Fenech’s right to a speedy trial was being impeded, the decision was later overturned on appeal.
After a three-month break, the compilation of evidence against Fenech was back in June.
From the witness stand, Theuma said he had been told that Chris Cardona used an intermediary to pay the hitmen €350,000 for the assassination.
The recorded conversations are among the most important pieces of evidence against Yorgen Fenech
Later that month, Schembri testified in the murder case against Fenech. He said that former prime minister Joseph Muscat had directed him to speak to Fenech shortly before the businessman’s arrest, to stop him from fleeing the island.
But the former chief of staff also threw a few grenades from the witness stand, claiming Fenech had paid off former opposition leader Adrian Delia.
Cardona stepped down as deputy leader of the Labour Party in June, and controversial former minister Konrad Mizzi was ousted from the party four years after he was first implicated in the Panama Papers by Caruana Galizia.
From the public inquiry we learnt that Fenech had known the date of the 2017 election well before it was ever announced.
As the hot July days rolled on, it was former attorney general Peter Grech’s turn to feel the heat. The public inquiry heard how he had warned police to tread carefully on the Panama Papers investigations. Grech would later resign the post he had held for more than a decade.
Bloodshed in Swieqi
But it was on the night of July 20 when the entire case against Fenech could have unravelled. Theuma was discovered unconscious in a pool of blood at his home in Swieqi.
In what was later deemed to be an attempted suicide, Theuma sustained lacerations to his wrists and throat with multiple stab wounds to his abdomen. For weeks it was unclear whether he would ever speak again, let alone be able to testify.
But after a successful recovery, he started speaking. In a written note he told a magistrate he was riddled with guilt over his part in the murder. However, others speculated whether his self-harm had been out of fear of the witness stand.
A few days later, previously unheard excerpts of Theuma’s secret recordings were anonymously posted on online forum Reddit, prompting yet another police investigation.
The ‘kitchen cabinet’
We heard from cabinet ministers who told the public inquiry how the Muscat administration had been run by a small “kitchen cabinet” which took the bulk of major decisions. Both ministers Evarist Bartolo and Edward Scicluna pointed to Schembri as the real power behind the throne. Later, deputy prime minister Chris Fearne would also testify that Schembri was untouchable.
In the criminal court, Fenech’s doctor Adrian Vella testified how he had been asked by Schembri to hand a note to the murder suspect during a medical check in police custody.
The typed note detailed how Cardona had allegedly plotted the murder, a claim he strongly denies.
The next few weeks saw a series of leaks from Fenech’s phone, as conversations he had with government figures led to a number of police investigations into possible corruption and bribery.
Times of Malta reported in August how the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had linked online searches for poison and a gun to Fenech prior to his arrest.
In court, the police testified how Fenech claimed Schembri had first approached him to “find someone to kill Daphne” back in 2014.
In September, Times of Malta reported how Fenech and Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis exchanged some 700 WhatsApp messages prior in 2019, exposing more of the businessman’s creeping roots in the Labour administration.
Lawyers claimed Theuma’s presidential pardon was bought for €17,000
In October, Times of Malta reported how Malta’s chief financial regulator, Joe Cuschieri, had gone on a Las Vegas jaunt with Fenech. The trip was investigated with Cuschieri resigning the following month.
That same month, Fenech’s lawyers claimed Theuma’s presidential pardon was negotiated and bought for €17,000, with the witness instructed to pin the blame for the assassination on Fenech.
That same rainy November week, Jason Azzopardi, who represents the Caruana Galizia family, conceded that the Fenech family had covered the cost of a 2017 holiday to Israel.
‘An attempted frame-up’
On November 13, Cardona testified before the public inquiry, defending his decision to sue Caruana Galizia multiple times, effectively freezing her assets.
He also insisted he had been the victim of an attempted frame-up for the murder but stopped short of saying who he thought was behind it.
Next on the stand was Mizzi. But anyone that was hoping to see the controversial politician stretched over the coals was left disappointed as the former minister refused to answer most of the questions put to him.
Joseph Muscat testified for five hours before the public inquiry at the start of December. Though he was held to account for pervasive corruption, he also lashed out at the inquiry for not sticking to its terms of reference, saying it had become “politicised”.
Schembri became the last person to testify before the public inquiry in 2020.
He told them how he knew a massive data leak had been handed to Caruana Galizia prior to her death. His marathon testimony also saw him recall his attempt to resign in 2016 and contradict Joseph Muscat over when the 2017 election date had been set.
The board presiding over the inquiry also decreed that they needed more time to conclude and so would not meet a mid-December deadline set by Robert Abela.
The prime minister reacted with a vague statement which said the board would now have to “shoulder the responsibility” of its decision.
The inquiry will now continue this month, with more witnesses expected to testify. So too will the criminal case against Fenech, the three alleged hitmen and Times of Malta’s in-depth coverage of all the major developments.