Joseph Muscat is putting one on. The Greek court’s decision to refuse Malta’s request to have Maria Efimova extradited made little difference to his position as a suspect of crimes, including corruption and money laundering. In spite of his best efforts, Efimova has already testified to what she knew in a magisterial inquiry he himself ordered.
That inquiry is hampered by several issues. Firstly, the main suspect drew up its terms of reference and designed the limitations of its discovery. That is an outrage in itself, but we’ve lived with it for 51 weeks now and that fact is not going to change.
The Prime Minister cheated everyone into thinking he was being transparent when he appointed an inquiry into the allegation he received bribes into a bank account of a secret company set up in Panama in his wife’s name. But the inquiry’s remit is extremely carefully defined and its conclusion will necessarily be limited by the terms of reference Muscat designed, not by the limit of the knowledge the inquiring magistrate has acquired.
Consider how determined is Muscat’s resistance now to the court-ordered police investigation with a broad remit to investigate the Panama leaks. That’s where the dirty stuff could come out and that’s what he’s doing his damndest to prevent.
The second problem is the obvious difficulty of investigating money laundering. This is the crime of disguising the flow of money to prevent authorities from realising it is the profit of illicit business. By definition, therefore, any evidence is well hidden or long destroyed.
The third problem is the suspect has the power of retribution against witnesses. Some are threatened with prison or ruinous fines. And though it is easy for the rest of us to say it is all in their mind, the nerves of those who know too much about the affairs of the Prime Minister may have frayed more since Daphne’s end.
Perhaps in a moment of naivety, Efimova ignored all these problems and walked into the magistrate’s court to testify to what she knew.
Muscat will need her credibility trounced. Labour already indulged in this when they worked to acquit the person accused of that other, providentially unsuccessful, targeted political assassination in our history: the attempt on Richard Cachia Caruana. Muscat was Alfred Sant’s ward when Labour applied all its resources to pervert the course of justice.
Back then, Sant’s motivations were vindictive, cruel and unjust but they were the motivations of political advantage. Muscat’s motivations this time round are deeper. He is saving his own skin.
It became immediately clear the campaign to discredit Efimova would not stop, right when the news of her release broke. The appeal from that decision leaves open the prospect of the witness dragged here in spite of the clear and present danger she faces.
Failing that, Cyprus could be egged on to reactivate its own arrest warrant. And the Castille henchmen can proceed with their vicious slander no matter where she is. Expect it to escalate.
Then why does Muscat need to put on that breezy look of utter indifference? Why does it not come naturally?
Because though sometimes we forget, apart from his status as a suspect, he is also Prime Minister. And he now leads an EU government that is not trusted even with ensuring a free trial of a woman accused by an indicted fraudster of defrauding him the equivalent of a day’s expense on one of Muscat’s lavish Dubai holidays. That may yet be reversed by an appeal’s court but for the moment last week’s sentence stands.
Muscat now leads an EU government that is not trusted even with ensuring a free trial of a woman accused by an indicted fraudster
There is no diminishing the extraordinary significance of this simple fact.
Muscat took over the leadership of a country that was a trusted partner in European and world affairs. He took over an EU Member State in the eurozone that the American Secretary of State at the time flew into to personally give chummy thanks after our country stepped up when Libya collapsed just down the road from us.
Small states hailed Malta as an example to be followed. Larger states stopped to listen when we spoke. We had our share of issues which we argued sensibly, defending our corner without appearing petty and parochial.
Above all, we demonstrated we were capable of making our democracy work on the basis of persuasion and the freedom to disagree.
Muscat may have taken over from a government that bored people out of their minds with their annoying predictability; that raised expectations higher than they could reach; that put John Dalli in a position to do worse than anyone could have imagined possible.
That allowed Muscat to present himself as fresh and desirable. And I suppose from a certain point of view many people genuinely believed that.
With time, that strategy had to morph into something altogether more sinister. Muscat’s cabal had to ensure everyone understands theirs is the only party in town. The going is good if you join up. For the loyalists there are spoils aplenty. But dare to walk away, to object, to resist or to complain and you’ll be smacked and exiled out into the cold.
Contractors that sell products or services to government know this. Civil servants know this. Judges and magistrates know this. Anyone for whom the favour of government can make a difference between a space by the hearth or starvation in the gutter understood this very clearly.
Muscat imposed full control on the currency to transact in fear or favour, and his power now is near absolute.
Then why does he need to put on that breezy look of utter indifference? Why does it not come naturally?
Because sometimes we forget that the world does not end at the extent of the horizon we see from our shores.
The rest of the world is now appreciating fully just what has been happening here, and Muscat’s ability to transact and negotiate his way outside of the country cannot be aided by the sort of intimidation or blackmail that he uses domestically.
He cannot get his henchmen to flatter or pummel his opposition into submission if his opposition is the leading press of the world and his counterparts leading the governments of our partner European member states.
Muscat is used to having his way. A Greek judge last week told him that’s not always going to happen anymore.
Joseph Muscat may brush off the narrow implications of that decision and may seek to arrange for its reversal but he’s smiling the forced grin of a schoolyard bully who has just been smacked by a kid he thought he could rough up.
Things will never be the same again.
Giovanni Bonello’s series, Misunderstanding the Constitution, will return next week.