Murder suspect and 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech knew by December 2016 that a general election would be held the following year, the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry was told on Wednesday.
Inspector Kurt Zahra told the inquiry that Fenech knew about the June 2017 election date months in advance, confirming something he had first mentioned on Monday while testifying in the compilation of evidence against Fenech.
SIM cards which would eventually be used by the alleged hitmen to carry out the murder were purchased around that period, the inquiry heard.
The 2017 general election was announced by then-prime minister Joseph Muscat during a May Day rally in Valletta, held just one month before the June 3 vote.
At the time, Muscat had said that the country was showing "signs of uncertainty" due to allegations linking him to secret company Egrant. The Egrant allegations were first made by Daphne Caruana Galizia in April of that year.
In public testimony that lasted just over one hour, Zahra also said that:
• the murder probe “has widened”;
• Fenech had received a photo of the terms of a pardon granted to middleman Melvin Theuma;
• he never attended briefings about the murder held at the Office of the Prime Minister;
• all members of a task force set up following the murder had access to all information about the case, including Europol;
• the police economic crimes unit only joined a murder task force when Melvin Theuma’s involvement was flagged;
• investigators would speak to then-deputy commissioner Silvio Valletta about the case first, while then-police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar would be kept updated about any developments;
• he was shocked to hear about leaks about the case and had previously worried that leaks could endanger the lives of investigators;
• prior to the murder, he did not believe that Caruana Galizia's life was in imminent danger.
Zahra told the inquiry that he would answer several other questions, including what he made of Valletta’s exposed friendship with Fenech and the current status of the investigation, in private.
Earlier, the inquiry heard from assistant commissioner Carmelo Magri, who provided documents related to police protection outside the Caruana Galizia family home.
Magri also told the three-person inquiry that questions about probes into Fenech’s company 17 Black and police requests for information from authorities in the UAE should be directed to Ian Abdilla, who until Tuesday was the chief of the police’s economic crimes unit.
The inquiry also heard testimony from Manoel Theatre chairman Michael Grech. Grech said that the theatre had received two scripts submitted by a theatre company run by playright and director Mario Philip Azzopardi which appeared to be based on Caruana Galizia.
The first script was submitted before her murder and was titled Min qatel lil Daphne? [Who killed Daphne?] The second script, for a play titled ix-Xiħa [The old lady], featured a well-to-do elderly lady who wrote a blog in English.
Grech said the theatre had rejected both scripts immediately, deeming them inappropriate.
As it happened
Live blog ends
11.47am With inspector Zahra testifying behind closed doors, this live blog will end here. We will have a summary of the key statements made by today's witnesses available at the top of this article soon.
Thank you for having joined us.
Inquiry to continue behind closed doors
11.44am Inspector Kurt Zahra will now continue testifying, but he will do so in private. The media is asked to leave the room and the public part of today's inquiry session is over.
Final script of ix-Xiħa
11.41am The day’s first witness – Manoel Theatre chairman Michael Grech – returns to the stand and presents a final script of the play ix-Xiħa.
Reminder: the play, which featured a well-to-do woman who wrote a blog in English, was presented to the theatre by Staġun, a theatre company run by Mario Philip Azzopardi. The Manoel declined to run it.
Grech tells the inquiry that the theatre does not have a copy of the script of the other play he mentioned in his testimony, also by Azzopardi: Min qatel lil Daphne?
That's all from Grech.
Burner phones and SIM cards
11.37am Azzopardi asks Zahra to elaborate on three SIM cards used for the murder which were activated in 2016.
Zahra: They were bought at the end of 2016 and used in burner phones to communicate off the grid. They were no longer used after the murder.
Zahra is asked whether the SIM cards were bought in Malta, and says that there is “nothing concrete yet”.
'Fenech knew of early election since 2016'
11.31am Lawyer Jason Azzopardi [appearing on behalf of the Caruana Galizia family] asks about Yorgen Fenech.
Zahra confirms that the suspect received a photo of the terms of the pardon granted to Melvin Theuma.
The board of inquiry asks Zahra whether he knows who informed Fenech.
“At this stage, no”, he says.
Zahra is asked about something he said while testifying on Monday: that Fenech knew about the early date of the 2017 general election.
“Yes, he knew since 2016,” Zahra says.
[The election took place in early June of 2017].
11.28am Zahra recalls how he was worried about the alleged hitmen knowing in advance that they were to be raided [in December 2017].
“They might have planted a bomb, you know!” he exclaims.
He says that when he learned of leaks from within the case, it shocked him.
Those leaks are still being investigated by members of the economic crimes unit, he says, adding that as far as he knows, the officers handling that probe are not the same ones investigating Melvin Theuma.
Does the task force investigate?
11.25am Comodini Cachia asks the witness to clarify: does the task force investigate, or not?
Zahra: I might not have explained things well. The task force is made up of various people but it doesn’t get its hands dirty. It leaves interrogations and further inquires to the various other branches.
Comodini Cachia: What about leaked information we have heard of so much?
Zahra: Information was shared by a very small circle of people. “We proceeded on a ‘need to know basis’ and didn’t even share information with underlings."
A raid in Latvia
11.22am Comodini Cachia notes that Latvian police raided a bank there [which has been linked to 17 Black]. Did the task force think of joining that operation?
Zahra says that the matter is “obviously” of interest to the task force but that it is not up to the task force to investigate.
The board of inquiry asks whether [former ECU head] Ian Abdilla would know about this.
“Yes,” Zahra says.
About Europol, the FBI and NFI
11.18am Zahra is asked about the FBI and Dutch intelligence services. How effective were they?
He says that he heard Silvio Valletta mention the FBI to the inquiring magistrate on the day of the murder, at the crime scene.
The Netherlands Forensic Institute were also brought in and nothing was touched at the crime scene until they arrived. Later, Europol were roped in too.
Zahra says he will elaborate further in private.
Comodini Cachia asks whether foreign investigators are involved in investigations into money laundering and corruption, too.
“Definitely Europol,” Zahra replies. “In fact, there’s a meeting under way as we speak”.
Zahra says he’s not sure whether the FBI is also involved.
Comodini Cachia asks whether Europol are involved as a joint investigative team or just providing assistance.
[Context: the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation has called on the attorney general to ask Europol to set up a cross-border JIT to investigate the murder].
Zahra: There’s a task force and all members see everything. There’s the CID, Europol and other units involved whenever the investigations branch out along different paths.
Gathering information about the hitmen
11.12am Comodini Cachia asks Zahra what the police did to gather information about the alleged hitmen.
Zahra says that some people may be notorious and known to police but not have many cases in court. So despite intelligence concerning them, the police might not have enough facts to press charges against them.
“But I’d rather speak about that behind closed doors, too,” he adds.
Zahra says that he joined the police’s CID after a car bomb case and that while there was never enough manpower to investigate, “I can safely say that we are in a much better position than we were back then”.
He says that as far as he knows, the Caruana Galizia murder was the first car bomb solved in Malta.
'The investigation has widened'
11.07am Zahra is asked about police briefings concerning the murder.
He says he knew of those linked to a pardon request by one of the suspects, but not about any others.
“I never attended those briefings at OPM, not even when the pardon was discussed. Arnaud and Cutajar attended, I remained at the police depot,” he says.
Zahra says the investigation has widened but that he would rather speak about that behind closed doors, as the probe is ongoing.
Police media unit
11.05am Comodini Cachia asks about the police’s media communications office (CMRU). She says that it seems as though Zahra’s reply to a journalist’s question had not reached its destination and was not published in the article in question.
[The question concerns a Times of Malta article about Yorgen Fenech’s demand to speak to the ECU about corruption, while he was being interrogated ahead of being charged with complicity in murder].
Zahra says he had sent his reply to the police CMRU but it was apparently not forwarded.
On Silvio Valletta
11am Therese Comodini Cachia asks Zahra what he felt when he discovered that Silvio Valletta was a friend of one of the accused [Yorgen Fenech].
He says he would like to speak about that privately, behind closed doors.
Lawrence Cutajar's involvement
10.57am Zahra says that investigations would be handled by inspectors. The commissioner would provide overall direction and inspectors would first go to Silvio Valletta before the commissioner.
He says that while the commissioner went onsite at the time of the murder, he was not involved in searches or inquiries, though he was given updates about them.
When Melvin Theuma was arrested, and then Yorgen Fenech, commissioner Lawrence Cutajar was present, Zahra says.
The board of inquiry want to know whether Cutajar was involved in the operation to arrest the alleged murder hitmen.
“He obviously didn’t come on-site at the Marsa sheds, but he knew of them,” Zahra says.
Zahra is asked whether that means the commissioner was informed of everything.
“Yes, 100%,” he replies.
Zahra did not think Daphne's life was in imminent danger
10.50am Zahra says he knows nothing about police protection for Daphne Caruana Galizia.
“My remit is homicide,” he explains.
He does not know whether the police have a risk assessment procedure when deciding whether to grant somebody protection.
The board presses on: did he ever think that her life could have been in danger?
“It’s a difficult question,” Zahra replies. “At the time, I doubt it. In my opinion, at the time I didn’t believe that anyone would go to the length of killing her. For somebody to go to that extreme…”
Caruana Galizia task force
10.46am Zahra is asked [by Comodini Cachia] how information is shared in the Caruana Galizia murder case.
He says that a task force made up of the police, Europol and FBI was set up. The group focused on the murder and the victim’s background, including her blog.
“We searched for the motive behind the crime,” he says. The task force kept in touch with cybercrime experts.
Initially, the police’s economic crimes unit (ECU) was not part of the task force. They entered the scene when Melvin Theuma’s name cropped up, as the investigation turned towards illegal betting and money laundering.
10.41am Zahra is asked who within the police force he shares information with.
He explains that information is normally shared between units and that a specially created analysis unit established following the Caruana Galizia murder receives information from all squads.
That unit is headed by inspector Malcolm Bondin and has a bird’s eye view of all information reaching the police. Each file is noted, Zahra adds.
10.38am Zahra says he was moved to homicides to give inspector Keith Arnaud a hand. Arnaud had a long string of car bombs to investigate, and he was doing so alone at the time.
Zahra says his direct superior is superintendent Raymond Cassar. But at the time Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed, the unit did not have a superintendent. At that time, Lawrence Cutajar was police commissioner and Silvio Valletta was second in command.
Kurt Zahra testifies
10.35am Inspector Kurt Zahra is the next witness.
He tells the inquiry he joined the force in 2003 and climbed the ranks, becoming an inspector in 2015.
He used to investigate serious transnational organised crime initially, and moved to homicides in 2017.
17 Black and Montenegro
10.33am Magri hands the inquiry documents showing logbook entries at district police stations.
Judge Said Pullicino asks the witness about the Montenegro wind farm deal and 17 Black. He wants to know whether cabinet was given any information about the deal.
Magri says he wasn’t involved “at all” in the matter.
Was Ian Abdilla involved?
“He might have been,” Magri says. He says Abdilla or inspector Muscat would know more.
And that’s all from Magri, who steps off the stand.
Letters rogatory for 17 Black
10.28am Questions now turn to police requests for financial information from the United Arab Emirates.
Magri says inspector Antonovitch Muscat sent a request to the UAE through Interpol, citing 17 black, Macbridge and Cifidex [three Dubai-registered companies involved in suspect deals].
Magri says the police did not receive a clear reply ,with UAE authorities demanding letters rogatory [legal requests submitted through court].
The board tells Magri that it has heard that the police were not cooperating. Were those letters rogatory sent?
Magri says they had best ask Ian Abdilla [who until Tuesday led the police’s economic crimes unit] those questions.
“I don’t know the facts,” he says.
Protection for Daphne
10.22am Magri presents an email showing the periods when police had patrols or fixed points at the Caruana Galizia family home. Therese Comodini Cachia asks how frequent they were.
Magri: Patrols started on May 19, 2006, after an arson at her home. Patrols continued after that, although they did not go past her house.
He concedes that patrols might have gone close to her home during the time John Rizzo was commissioner.
Magri says police presence was upped around election times. There was also a period – from September to October 2010 – with a fixed point outside the house, though Magri says he does not know why.
“So fixed points were set up at election times and then removed?” Comodini Cachia asks.
“But if she needed a fixed point at election times, didn’t she need one at other times too?”
Magri says he can’t answer that question.
[Context: former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar has insisted that it is not true that the Caruana Galizia family was stripped of police protection following 2013. You can see him argue that point here].
Carmelo Magri to testify
10.15am That’s all from Peter Caruana Galizia. Next up is Carmelo Magri, who until Monday served as acting police commissioner.
Magri is here to present some documents he had been asked for last week.
Peter Caruana Galizia takes the stand
10.11am Caruana Galizia tells the inquiry that his son Matthew did some research and found that at 3.00pm on October 16, 2017 [the time Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed], Joseph Muscat was at a Sliema company’s office. It was 3.13pm and he gave a speech there.
Here's a promo video of that event:
Comodini Cachia says Schembri lied
10.06am Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia, who is representing the Caruana Galizia family, says Keith Schembri lied while testifying on Monday when he claimed to have been with Joseph Muscat when he learnt that Caruana Galizia had been killed.
She says there is evidence online [on TVM's website] that shows how the two men were not together at the time, and she presents that evidence to the board of inquiry.
"We didn't want to say this earlier because we were concerned the footage might be removed," Comodini Cachia says.
10.04am Grech says the blogger character in Ix-Xiħa was an elderly, well-off lady who wrote a blog in English.
Grech is asked about the script to Min qatel lil Daphne? but says he doubts they kept copies, “since it was rejected outright”.
"It was the time of the Panama Papers. That sort of title would have inciting acts which unfortunately ended up happening. We would have been abetting incitement," Grech says.
That's all from Grech, who steps off the witness stand.
9.59am Grech is asked how the playwright reacted to having his script rejected. He says he cannot remember.
Judge Lofaro asks whether any similar scripts have been submitted lately.
Grech says that the same company run by Azzopardi had recently submitted a script titled Ix-Xiħa [The old lady] which featured a blogger modelled on Daphne
Caruana Galizia, but that he’s not sure whether the company subcontracts work out to third parties.
Grech says he doesn’t know what happens to the blogger character in this play, as he did not go through all the script.
“Daphne’s story is still ongoing and I don’t think there should be a play about it right now,” he says.
9.56am Grech is now recalling details about Min qatel lil Daphne?
He tells the board that the play was definitely submitted before Caruana Galizia was killed, probably in 2016.
“I got a call from the CEO telling me about the play. I immediately told him to inform Azzopardi that it was rejected,” Grech says.
Grech says he rejected the idea out of hand.
“The title alone sufficed,” he says. “It incited violence and was certainly not appropriate for the national theatre.”
Grech says that he did not even want to have a look at the script.
Terms of the deal
9.52am Scripts submitted as part of the deal go through a first reading by the artistic director and CEO and are then vetted by other members, Grech says, with a final decision taken by the board.
Min qatel lil Daphne?
9.49am Grech is told that he will be asked questions about a play titled Min qatel lil Daphne? [Who killed Daphne?] written by Mario Philip Azzopardi.
Grech is a lawyer by profession and also serves as chair of the Manoel Theatre, a post he has occupied since 2010.
He tells the inquiry that some years ago, the theatre had sought to encourage Maltese-language plays, as these were lacking. The Finance Ministry was also involved and a deal was signed.
The deal meant the Manoel Theatre got €20,000 to stage plays by Staġun Teatru Malti, a company run by Mario Philip Azzopardi.
Judges enter, session begins
9.46am The three judges who make up the board of inquiry - Michael Mallia, Joseph Said Pullicino and Abigail Lofaro - take their place and the first witness is summoned.
Michael Grech takes the oath.
Plenty of legroom
9.41am Last Monday's hectic court session was held in one of the Valletta law courts' smaller rooms. Court officials had to bring in extra chairs and turn people away.
Today is shaping up to be a far less busy affair - and it's happening in a much larger hall than Monday's.
Caruana Galizia family in attendance
9.35pm Two of Daphne's sisters are in the courtroom, as is her husband Peter and lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia, who is appearing on the family's behalf.
Maurizio Cordina from the State Advocate's office is also there.
There's a calm and quiet atmosphere. It's quite the change from Monday, when Keith Schembri testified in the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech.
Fenech stands accused of complicity in the Caruana Galizia murder.
A play about a Daphne
9.30am Grech is likely to be asked questions about a 2016 play which featured the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia as its premise. The play was not staged and Caruana Galizia would end up assassinated in October 2017.
9.24am Good morning and welcome to this live blog. We'll be bringing you minute-by-minute updates from the Caruana Galizia inquiry, which is scheduled to resume at 9.30am.
People have started gathering in the law court corridors, waiting for the courtroom doors to be opened.
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