Is it time to restore our faith in the institutions on which Malta depends for the rule of law to prevail?

That would be premature, but the dramatic news that came on Monday night sheds some light at the end of the dark tunnel of institutional paralysis that has shrouded Malta for the last few years.

Former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri’s assets were frozen by court order, on request of the attorney general and following the conclusion of a three-year magisterial inquiry into claims of bribery and money laundering that was last week passed on to the police.

That inquiry had been requested by Simon Busuttil, then leader of the opposition, after a leaked financial intelligence unit report raised a red flag about financial transfers to Schembri’s Pilatus Bank account from his accountant Brian Tonna’s offshore company.

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Busuttil claimed publicly that the payments were kickbacks from the passport sales scheme and said he had documented evidence to prove it, coming from sources other than journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Since the police failed to act, Busuttil presented the evidence he had to a magistrate.

Three years later, we are finally seeing some results. Schembri and Tonna were among those arrested and questioned by the police on Tuesday.

Joseph Muscat, with Schembri, had presided over the shameless destruction of so much of Malta’s institutional capacity to check abuse of power and uncover criminal infiltration in its corridors.

It is too early to say that the “institutions are working”, as this prime minister is wont to declare, echoing the prime minister before him.

Joseph Muscat, with Schembri, had presided over the shameless destruction of so much of Malta’s institutional capacity to check abuse of power and uncover criminal infiltration in its corridors.

However, the latest development, involving so many of the island’s key institutions – the courts, police, attorney general, FIAU, politicians and the media – does start to restore hope in the potential of these and other institutions to be the bulwarks of democracy they are meant to be – if run by people of integrity who act without fear or favour.

That is the key. Action against Schembri could have taken place three years ago had the police and AG of the time done something with the information available to them, rather than Busuttil having to resort to initiating a magisterial inquiry.

What has changed? It is not the law. It is the people running the show.

Muscat and Schembri have lost power, although there are still legitimate doubts over whether Robert Abela, whose ascent to the premiership is known to have had their support, is totally free of their influence.

There has been a change of guard at the top of the police and attorney general’s office. There has not been any reason to question the integrity of the magistrates who have handled this case so far.

Another thing that has changed is the international pressure that is being brought to bear on Malta to clean up its act and prove that it can exorcise the cancer of corruption and criminal dealings that have destroyed its reputation abroad and has the potential to ravage its economy.

What does all this mean for the country and its people?

The rot is now being exposed for all to see.

The big-picture lesson is this: insofar as democracy truly comes into its own every five years, when the people are sovereign in exercising their right to vote for their leaders, they must never again turn a blind eye to signs of corrupt practices.

Those signs were abundant in 2017 but were ignored. The rot is now being exposed for all to see.

Let’s hope we are in time to stop the worst effects of its corrosiveness.

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