Judges conducting the public inquiry into whether the state could have prevented the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia said on Monday they will continue proceedings beyond the extended deadline set for them by the prime minister.

In a statement at the end of a six-and-a-half hour sitting in which they questioned former chief of staff Keith Schembri, the judges declared that they would not accept any undue pressure or interference curtailing their brief.

“The search for truth should never be subjected to arbitrary and unilateral terms which may condition those called to judge,” the chairman of the board, Judge Michael Mallia said. 

The board originally had a September deadline to conclude its work, but the prime minister extended it to December 15 owing to delays caused by the Covid-19 lockdown. In October the board indicated it could go over its second deadline for the  'proper fulfilment' of its brief. Earlier this month Abela said the inquiry board had already been given enough time to fulfil its mandate.

In their statement on Monday, the judges said that the board, in defence of its “independence and autonomy,” would appreciate if it were allowed to proceed with its work “serenely” so as to reach an objective judgment, free of “improper pressure and undue interference,” he said.

There was no room for binding time limits unless stated in the terms of reference, and the original nine-month limit had been set out without prejudice to the “just fulfilment” of those terms, agreed upon with the family of the assassinated journalist.

It was only for the board to determine the terms of reference and the level of proof necessary to fulfil that brief, he continued. 

“Every attempt to limit or extend those terms is thus unacceptable,” the board declared, going on to state that any such attempt, direct or indirect, is to be considered as interference in the course of justice.

Having heard some 100 witnesses over 85 sittings spread over the past year- save for the 10-week interruption brought about by the COVID-19 lockdown- the board has substantially concluded the hearing of testimonies.

However, it observed that the police commissioner, the head of the Financial Crimes Unit as well as Inspector Kurt Zahra had said when testifying, that data from electronic devices analysed by Europol, could “be substantially useful” to the inquiry.

That data should be available by mid-January, the board said. It therefore  suspended hearings until then.

Retired Judge Mallia and Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino declared that they are willing to renounce to their honoraria in view of the “wrong perception” emanating from certain quarters that prolonging the inquiry could burden the public coffers.

It was now for the prime minister to decide, they concluded, placing themselves at his discretion whilst deferring the inquiry to January.

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