Updated Tuesday with Vella's comment
Suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono has accused ex-OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri of attempting to frame him for journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
Speaking to Times of Malta, the ex-footballer claims there were attempts “from the very top” to falsely implicate him in the October 2017 assassination.
“It was a typical frame-up. From the first day Daphne was killed, there was a push from the top to implicate me. Despite protesting my innocence, at the time, no one wanted to believe me.”
He further claims: “This was all coming from the Office of the Prime Minister [OPM]. From Keith Schembri. From the most powerful people in Malta.”
A 2021 public inquiry into the journalist’s murder reached the same conclusion, saying that the “Office of the Prime Minister” pushed out the story that the masterminds could be persons linked to fuel smuggling, in an apparent bid to spread fake news or pervert investigations.
Debono was arrested in Sicily for suspected fuel smuggling, three days after Caruana Galizia’s murder. The case against him there is still ongoing.
Suspicions immediately turned to his potential involvement in the murder, with the media, including Times of Malta, reporting that the police were not ruling him out as a suspect in those early days of their investigations.
Debono says upon his arrest in Sicily, the police asked him outright if he had anything to do “with the journalist”.
“It is like the whole thing was pre-planned. From day one, there were attempts by Keith Schembri to frame me for the murder.”
A confrontation with an editor
He says from then onwards, the media narrative linking fuel smuggling to the murder simply would not go away, doing great harm to both himself and his family.
According to Debono, MaltaToday co-owner Saviour Balzan was particularly persistent in pushing out that narrative.
Debono claims he received further confirmation that the narrative came from Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s office after confronting Balzan in July 2019.
Debono says he dropped in on MaltaToday’s offices in San Ġwann, unannounced, to show Balzan documents about his “legitimate” fuel trading activities, as well as to protest his innocence about any involvement in the murder.
He also says he told Balzan that he was positive Schembri “and the Prime Minister’s office” were behind this false murder narrative.
In reply to his protestations of innocence, Debono claims that Balzan told him: “Do you think I am going to believe you instead of Keith Schembri...”
Both Balzan and then-executive editor Matthew Vella, who was also present for the meeting Matthew Vella deny those words were ever spoken during the meeting.
Debono says soon after his meeting with Balzan, he was told the police wanted to speak to him about his confrontation with the MaltaToday co-owner.
He later released a formal statement to the police, during which he denied a suggestion by then inspector Keith Arnaud that he had gone to Balzan as a way to intimidate Muscat and Schembri.
Arnaud is the lead investigator on the Caruana Galizia case.
Debono insisted he had merely wanted to meet Balzan to set the record straight on the fuel smuggling claims. He admitted that he also visited the offices in the hope that Balzan would pass on a request for Debono to meet with either Muscat or Schembri.
‘Schembri, Muscat behind narrative’
Contacted for comment, Balzan said Debono had made a habit of turning up at MaltaToday’s offices unannounced.
Balzan confirmed that he had contacted Arnaud, as Debono’s unannounced presence at his offices was worrying his journalists.
“In his meetings at our offices, Mr Debono, who faced various criminal charges, claimed that he was not involved in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and that I should inform Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri about this.”
Balzan said he told Debono that he refused to act as a messenger.
“At the time, several media reports had followed the line that fuel smugglers were behind the murder. Later on, after the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, I was the first to admit that this original storyline was fanned by Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri,” Balzan said.
He added that Debono continued to “pester” him with messages and unannounced visits.
“I decided to inform his lawyer Dr Stephen Tonna Lowell to ask his client not to approach me or send me messages,” Balzan said.
Balzan said that even a cursory look at his writings and what Malta Today wrote during this period will prove they did not promote a link between the Caruana Galizia murder and fuel smuggling.
Muscat: Italian media pushed that theory
When contacted, Joseph Muscat denied fanning any particular storyline and mentioning anyone by name.
“What is true is that Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote about oil smuggling rings, and murders suspected to be linked to them, in detail,” Muscat said.
He also pointed towards several large media outlets in Italy immediately pushing the theory that fuel smuggling was behind the murder in Malta.
"Italian media, namely Rai News 24 quoting an American journalist, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, had immediately pushed this theory, also referring to the explosive type used. Rai Tre repeated the same theory a year after"
“I spoke with none of these outlets. It was a line which was actively followed by competent authorities for a considerable time and which I believe was deemed credible.
“The authorities have confirmed more than once that government gave them all the necessary resources to investigate and did not interfere,” Muscat said.
Schembri did not reply to a request for comment.
A frame-up… and a tip-off
Debono has long been implicated in fuel smuggling, although he denies the claims and insists all his activities are legitimate and his documents in order.
Despite suspicions of the alleged fuel smuggling network also operating in Malta, Debono and his associates never faced any criminal action while Muscat and Schembri were in government.
Debono claims that Schembri’s lawyer Edward Gatt even tipped off his associate Jeffrey Chetcuti in 2019 about a push by the Maltese and American governments to have him added to the UN sanctions list.
Gatt declined to comment when contacted.
Debono's claims about US spying request
Debono’s lawyers had filed a court injunction against the Maltese government in a bid to halt the UN sanctioning process. Debono had sensationally claimed in court that the Americans had asked him to “spy” on Muscat and Schembri, in exchange for lifting separate sanctions slapped on him by the US the previous year.
Debono had said the Americans wanted information on whether Muscat and Schembri secretly facilitated the refuelling of a Russian warship outside of Maltese territorial waters.
The attempt to further sanction Debono and his associates was ultimately blocked at UN level by Russia.
Debono was arrested in November 2020 and later charged with money laundering, together with Chetcuti and his associate Gordon Debono.
Last year, Gordon Debono called on police to investigate who was behind the “false claims” that Caruana Galizia was murdered because of fuel smuggling.
Schembri has long faced accusations of abusing his position to sabotage the murder investigation and prevent the arrest of his friend Yorgen Fenech.
He was detained and questioned by police in November 2019, after Fenech pointed to him as the mastermind behind the murder and also offered to tell all about government corruption in exchange for a pardon.
Fenech claimed that Schembri had authored and passed on a letter to him, containing a narrative on how to frame ex-minister Chris Cardona for the assassination.
An investigation into Schembri’s role in leaking information from the murder probe to Fenech and other people has yet to result in any criminal charges.
Fenech is set to face trial over his alleged role in the assassination, though he protests his innocence.
Vella: 'Handle Debono with caution'
Matthew Vella said Debono "paraphrased" his allegation in the form of indirect speech that was denied publicly by himself and Balzan, who were part of this meeting.
"I, for one, have been threatened in the discharge of my duties as a journalist by Debono – prior to this unsolicited meeting – who had suggestively sent me a photo of my daughter by WhatsApp and told me “family is precious”; as well as having been intercepted twice by his associate and family member (both of them facing charges of money laundering) in unsolicited advances despite my repeated requests to them and Debono’s lawyer not to importune me."
"It is important that Times of Malta, with whom Malta Today has collaborated in full spirit of collegiality in the past, only handles with caution the word of a man accused of fuel smuggling in Italy, as well as money laundering in Malta, whose intention is to undermine the integrity of Malta Today’s owner as well as mine, and to further the chilling effects of the aforementioned threats."
Vella said it was Balzan himself who testified to the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry that the Office of the Prime Minister sought to frame Debono, yet it is untrue that Malta Today ever entertained that line.
"Indeed, readers should know that in this meeting Saviour Balzan told Debono – repeatedly – that he would not act as a messenger for anyone; and point-blank told Debono, who at that time was under pressure from American OFAC sanctions, to reveal what he knew of alleged phone-calls from Castille to shippers carrying oil to carry out a secret refuelling of a Russian warship. This was in fact reported by MaltaToday numerous times in its ongoing chain of articles on fuel smuggling."