Updated 11.30am, adds Jason Azzopardi's reaction
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and alleged Daphne Caruana Galizia murder conspirator Yorgen Fenech exchanged hundreds of messages last year, mobile cache data is expected to reveal.
Times of Malta is informed that Zammit Lewis and Fenech would chat regularly over messaging app WhatsApp, with some 700 messages exchanged between January and October 2019.
The messages are among a much larger cache of data expected to be presented in court as part of the compilation of evidence against Fenech.
In November, a few weeks after the correspondence between the two went dry, Fenech was arrested and charged with complicity in the killing of the journalist.
Fenech’s alleged involvement in the murder was not publicly known before that time, although he had been identified as a suspect by investigators since at least mid-2018.
It is understood that Zammit Lewis and Fenech met over meals during 2019, even after the businessman was outed as the owner of the once-secret offshore company 17 Black.
The company and its involvement in alleged corruption tied to the gas-fired power station has been described as a potential motive in the assassination plot by police investigating the case.
Asked to comment, Zammit Lewis told Times of Malta that he had cut off contact with Fenech “well before” he had been arrested for the murder of Caruana Galizia.
“I had ceased all contact with Yorgen Fenech well before he was implicated in the assassination of Ms Daphne Caruana Galizia and this remains the case till today,” he said.
Zammit Lewis said he had never had any legal or commercial relationship with Fenech, or any other form of relationship through which he may have benefitted in any way.
He added that he would not be distracted from his work delivering constitutional and institutional reform to strengthen the country’s governance and rule of law credentials.
This is not the first time the minister has faced journalists’ questions over his relationship with Fenech.
Back in July, Zammit Lewis told Times of Malta “there is no relationship” between himself and Fenech. He had said he got to know Fenech when he served as tourism minister [between 2014 and 2017], because the businessman was a leading operator in the sector.
“It is a small country, everyone knows everyone,” he had said.
The minister later added that his “acquaintance” with Fenech would not impact his work as justice minister and ensuring justice is served.
The proximity between the two could raise potential claims of conflict of interest given that any potential request for a presidential pardon would land first on the minister’s desk.
Fenech has previously sought – and denied – a presidential pardon by the cabinet of the previous government.
On Monday, Zammit Lewis said that in the eventuality that Fenech were to file a second pardon request, he would seek the advice of Prime Minister Robert Abela on whether or not he should sit out any discussion on the matter.
In July, Abela had said that if it indeed turned out that any of his Cabinet members had a close or intimate relationship with Fenech, he would urge them to not be part of any future discussion on a possible second presidential pardon request by the alleged murder conspirator.
However, Abela was quick to stand by his ministers, saying that while he had already proved he was ready to take “tough decisions” – such as the sacking of former minister Konrad Mizzi – he would not let anyone dictate terms to the government.
“I also believe that you as journalists and whoever is spreading these doubts, that it is important not to humiliate people,” he was quoted as saying.
Abela said he believes there is a “demarcation line” as to when any ministerial friendships with Fenech would be problematic.
“It depends if the friendship or intimate relationship was before or after Yorgen Fenech was implicated in the [murder] case. To me that is the demarcation line,” he had said.
The opposition's shadow minister for justice, Jason Azzopardi, said news of the WhatsApp exchanges demanded action by Prime Minister Robert Abela.
In the best-case scenario, the Whatsapp messages showed a lack of judgement by a government minister. In the worst-case scenario, they reflected something that was much worse than that, he said.
Abela, Azzopardi said, could not remain idle unless he wanted to become an accomplice through his silence.
Azzopardi noted that during the time period when the messages were exchanged, Fenech was already known as the owner of 17 Black and was also the reason energy prices in Malta were much higher than they should be.
This "web of corruption" was now more grievous as it had become known that the Maltese paid €40 million in tax on fuel which had to be paid to Electrogas because of Mizzi’s actions, Azzopardi said.
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