Five men facing criminal charges over a phantom government job handed to murder middleman Melvin Theuma months before the Caruana Galizia assassination have a case to answer, a court has declared.
That was the outcome of a decree read out in open court by Magistrate Monica Vella in the ongoing compilation of evidence against former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri, alleged murder accomplice Yorgen Fenech and three former government officials.
All five deny charges of theft and misappropriation stemming from testimony given by Theuma in separate proceedings linked to the murder where he described how he had received a call from Fenech, some five months before the murder, telling him about an upcoming visit to Castille.
Soon after, Theuma got a call from Craus who directed him to visit the office of the Prime Minister.
On the scheduled date, Theuma was met by Sandro Craus and Schembri who gave him a tour of the office, offered him a coffee and also posed for a photo with the taxi driver, before directing him to a nearby ministry.
That was where Theuma was met by Anthony Muscat, former CEO of the state-owned Housing Maintenance and Embellishment Co Ltd, who told him that he was being offered a messenger/driver job, despite Theuma’s insistence that he already had a taxi business.
In the following months, Theuma received three pay cheques in spite of not having ever reported for work.
Theuma also said that when the fourth payment was not delivered, he had called Fenech and Muscat to flag the matter and that last payment was subsequently effected.
No further payments were made after the 2017 general election.
Police investigations triggered by Theuma’s testimony led to criminal action against Schembri, Fenech, Muscat, Craus as former head of OPM customer care as well as Anthony Mario Ellul, former family ministry private secretary.
Proceedings took a rather unexpected twist when Theuma, summoned as main witness by the prosecution, declined to testify after being cautioned that he had a right not to answer any potentially self-incriminating questions.
That brief appearance at the witness and five-word reply, “I choose not to testify,” triggered some heated arguments by the accused’s lawyers who promptly asked the court to have Theuma’s statements about the job removed from the case records.
Moreover, the defence insisted that unless Theuma’s testimony about the phantom job was covered by the presidential pardon granted in connection with his involvement in the Caruana Galizia murder, Theuma should have been brought to court as co-accused rather than as a witness.
However, the court rejected that request for the removal of Theuma’s testimony.
On Tuesday, Magistrate Vella turned down another request by Schembri and Muscat’s lawyers to have the matter referred to a constitutional court.
The court did, however, comment that it was “odious that a person who was potentially an alleged co-perpetrator was not charged alongside the other alleged co-accused.”
That was for the prosecution and the Attorney General to decide, but that person could subsequently refuse to face cross-examination, as happened in this case, remarked Magistrate Vella.
When the case was called again on Wednesday, the court delivered a decision whereby it held that there were sufficient reasons at first glance for proceedings to continue in respect of all five co-accused.
Citing case law, the court held that as a court of criminal inquiry its function was to gather evidence and assess whether that evidence pointed to all the elements of the alleged offences, at least on a basis of probability.
A prima facie decree is not a declaration of guilt, the court stressed.
It was for other courts of criminal jurisdiction to examine that evidence and reach the final decision.
Moreover, further evidence could be produced to overturn that probability.
However, in line with previous pronouncements by the courts, in case of doubt as to guilt, the court at this stage was to commit the accused to trial on indictment rather than discharge.
It is then up to the prosecution to decide whether to collect further evidence or not.
In light of such considerations, the court concluded that there was no doubt that there were sufficient reasons to commit all five accused to trial on indictment.
The case continues.
Inspectors Nicholas Vella and Brian Paul Camilleri prosecuted. Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo are counsel to Schembri. Lawyers Gianluca Caruana Curran, Charles Mercieca and Marion Camilleri are counsel to Fenech. Lawyer Stefano Filletti is counsel to Muscat. Lawyers Michael and Lucio Sciriha and Roberto Spiteri are counsel to Craus. Lawyers Vince Micallef and Ryan Ellul were counsel to Ellul.