Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had directed his then-chief of staff, Keith Schembri, to speak to murder suspect Yorgen Fenech and stop him from leaving Malta, Schembri has claimed. 

Schembri made the claim when testifying on Monday in the compilation of evidence against the man whose friendship he had cherished since his youth. He even told the court that he would willingly “step into the fire” to help Fenech.

“It’s true that I would step into the fire for Yorgen, but not about this [murder] case. In fact when the police were closing in on Yorgen I had to put on a straight face,” Schembri said.

The former top OPM official categorically denied that Fenech had ever spoken to him about the murder, shooting down allegations by self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma who has repeatedly insisted that Schembri and former assistant police commissioner Silvio Valletta used to leak confidential information to Fenech about the assassination probe. 

When taking the witness stand on Monday and after being duly cautioned, Schembri denied that he had been somehow involved in the affair, or that the promise of bail for the alleged hitmen had stemmed from him. 

He strongly denied knowing the hitmen who allegedly executed the car bomb explosion on October 16, 2017, and said that hearing of the bombing had left him "glued to his seat". Schembri also said he had never spoken to anyone on their behalf. 

'One of the most esteemed members of the business scene'

He described Fenech as one of the most highly esteemed members of the local business scene, “a humble person, easy to get along with,” and one who welcomed many people, including businessmen, politicians and police officers, into his home.

“Fenech told me that in the past there used to be politicians who lunched with him. The Opposition leader once asked for €50,000 to be used against (David) Casa’s election. And he used to send [then PN head of media] Pierre Portelli to collect €20,000 every month. This happened on a regular basis,” said Schembri, adding that he himself had once come across Portelli waiting at the Portomaso reception desk. 

Shortly after that testimony emerged in court, Portelli published an affidavit that he signed last week rejecting those claims. PN leader Adrian Delia and the party itself also vehemently denied the allegations. 

17 Black

While denying that he had any business venture with his long-time friend, Schembri said that he had listed Fenech's company 17 Black as a target client “because Fenech was a good friend.”

Caruana Galizia was the first to reveal 17 Black's existence and Schembri had previously denied knowing who it belonged to.

Schembri said that he had been informed by three people that the PN had access to information about his trust in New Zealand. He said he had opened the trust there as he could not trust local banks. New Zealand advised him to open a company in Panama because it was the fastest option.

"Just because I was Keith Schembri, it doesn't mean that all my affairs should end up in the media,” he told the court.

'Theuma tapes contain so much confusion and bluff'

As questions turned to the recordings by Theuma, Schembri dismissed the evidence emerging from them, saying that the tapes contained “so much confusion and bluff". 

Nor was he privy to the details of the pardon granted to the middleman, he said, adding that he was sometimes asked not to attend certain security briefings on the murder probe. 

As for the alleged leaks of the date of the hitmen’s arrest, Schembri said that the final go-ahead had been issued on a Saturday afternoon during one such briefing, two days before the actual raids on the Marsa potato sheds.

Schembri also faced questions about a letter which a doctor, Adrian Vella, handed to Fenech while the suspect was under arrest. 

The letter is alleged to have come from Schembri and contained instructions on how Fenech could pin the murder on former minister Chris Cardona.

Faced with a copy of the letter, Schembri again denied any involvement. 

“It was not written by me, nor originated from me nor did I give it to anyone,” Schembri insisted, promptly being warned by presiding magistrate Rachel Montebello about the implications of lying under oath. 

“So is the doctor lying too?” remarked the Court. 

Camilleri and Zahra take the witness stand

Another person to take the witness stand on Monday, former OPM security officer Kenneth Camilleri, chose not to testify after being duly cautioned by court in view of possible criminal action being taken against him as investigations continued. 

As the session proceeded late into the afternoon, Kurt Zahra, one of the leading inspectors on the case, also testified, going over the lengthy process of the murder probe. 

Zahra worked his way through the entire process, retelling much of what Theuma had previously testified, with the occasional interruption from the defence team. 

The final point of contention was when Zahra said that he had told Fenech’s lawyers to speak to the economic crimes unit about certain cases of corruption that the businessman wanted to reveal.

The lawyers implied that that assertion was “not true,” with the matter being ultimately debated further behind closed doors, upon a request by the defence team. 

'Fenech's rights are being breached'

As the session drew to an end, lawyer Charles Mercieca pointed out that Fenech’s rights were being breached since he could not speak to his lawyers privately in prison, all documents had to be vetted by prison authorities and phone calls were recorded. 

Such practices were making it difficult for the lawyers to prepare their defence and thus a man who was still presumed innocent was being deprived of his right to proper legal assistance.

The compilation continues on July 30.

Inspectors Keith Arnaud and Kurt Zahra prosecuted, assisted by deputy AG Philip Galea Farrugia and lawyer Nadia Attard. 

Lawyers Gianluca Caruana Curran, Marion Camilleri and Mercieca were defence counsel. 

Lawyers Jason Azzopardi, Therese Comodini Cachia and Peter Caruana Galizia appeared parte civile. 

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