Updated with new magistrate name at 5.50pm
The case against men accused of supplying the bomb used to murder journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and murdering lawyer Carmel Chircop is to be reassigned after magistrate Nadine Lia recused herself on Friday.
Magistrate Lia said she would accept a request filed by the Caruana Galizia family’s lawyers to abstain from the case, as such cases had to be handled "with utmost serenity and always in the best interests of justice."
Her decision, delivered after more than two hours of deliberation, means the compilation of evidence against Robert Agius, Adrian Agius, Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio must be assigned to a new magistrate before it can get under way.
Robert Agius and Jamie Vella, both 37, are charged with supplying the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia in October 2017.
Adrian Agius, 42, is charged with commissioning the murder of Chircop. Vella and George Degiorgio, 58, are charged with carrying out Chircop’s assassination in a Birkirkara garage complex.
The Agius brothers, known as Ta' Maksar, and Vella were arrested on February 23, just hours after hitman Vince Muscat admitted his involvement in Caruana Galizia's murder. Muscat, known as il-Koħħu, was sentenced to 15 years in prison following a plea bargain agreement.
Magistrate Lia was the second magistrate assigned the case, after magistrate Marse-Ann Farrugia abstained from it as soon as she was drawn by lot.
The Caruana Galizia family’s lawyers, Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia, told Lia that they did not doubt her integrity but wanted her to stick to the position she adopted when she had recused herself from hearing the case against Yorgen Fenech.
Sources said later magistrate Caroline Farrugia Frendo was later selected by lot to preside over the case.
Fenech stands accused of complicity in Caruana Galizia’s murder.
In her decree, Lia said that her recusal in that case did not necessarily mean she should recuse herself in this one, adding that lawyers should not have waited until the case’s first session to register their objection.
Lia, whose father-in-law is Labour lawyer Pawlu Lia, noted that her recusal was being linked to her familial ties and, quoting from a separate judgement, highlighted the partisan divide that characterised Malta.
But despite her reservations about the recusal request, she nevertheless upheld it.
Lawyers Alfred Abela and Rene Darmanin represented the Agius brothers and Vella. Lawyer William Cuschieri represented Degiorgio.
Lawyer George Camilleri represented the attorney general’s office while superintendent Keith Arnaud and inspector Wayne Camilleri prosecuted.
Meanwhile, as Lia deliberated about the recusal, tax chief Marvin Gaerty appeared as a witness in a courtroom just down the hall, as a public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s murder continued.
Gaerty told the inquiry he needed the prime minister’s permission to testify about specific tax affairs, with that position angering state advocate Chris Soler.
The board of inquiry told Gaerty his department had one week to prepare documents about specific companies and individuals cited by the Caruana Galizia family in their submissions.
In brief testimony, Gaerty acknowledged having made a “mistake” in chummily conversing with Yorgen Fenech in text messages.
“Maybe I went out of line,” he said after being confronted with messages in which he referred to Fenech as “brother”.
“I am a friendly man,” Gaerty told the board, insisting he had done nothing wrong.
The inquiry continues on March 12.
As it happened
Live blog ends
1.24pm The court hearing is now over. We'll know when it will resume once a new magistrate is assigned to preside over the case.
This live blog will end here. We'll have a summary of the key events from the morning available at the top of this article shortly. Thank you for having joined us.
Magistrate recuses herself
1.19pm Magistrate Nadine Lia has recused herself from the case, upholding a request filed by the Caruana Galizia family’s lawyers.
The case will now be assigned to a different magistrate.
Lia’s decree seemed to be pointing towards her refusing the recusal request – she chastised the parte civile lawyers for not having asked for her recusal before today, said judges should be seen as being impartial and noted that none of the parties had expressed doubts about her integrity.
But in the end, she upheld the recusal request.
Citing case law
1.14pm The magistrate touches upon case law concerning recusals.
She cites the Keith Schembri vs Simon Busuttil case and the recusal issue that cropped up there regarding Victor Axiaq. [A mystery “third party” had advised Axiaq to recuse himself from that case]
Lia notes a remark in the Samuel Azzopardi vs AG judgement: these islands are marked by partisan politics and the divide between PL and PN.
It would be a pity if this were to affect the judicial system, she says, saying that the judge is not presumed “ne parziale ne corrotto” [neither partial nor corrupt],
Lia says her recusal in this case is being to her being married to a lawyer who whose father “used to offer services to political figures.”
Times have changed since her previous recusal in Yorgen Fenech’s case. At the time, the prosecution had not asked for recusal. Today, for some reason, both the police and attorney general’s lawyer seconded the parte civile’s recusal request.
Yet, having said all that, "such a sensitive case should be conducted with utmost serenity and doubtlessly always in the best interests of justice".
Lia upholds the recusal request and orders case to be sent back to court registrar to be re-assigned.
Magistrate Nadine Lia reads out decree
1.09pm Lia reads out her decree. She starts by noting that she was the second person to be drawn by lot, after magistrate Marse-Ann Farrugia abstained from the case.
She says the parties involved had not objected to any particular magistrate before lots were drawn. Given that the name of the magistrate in question is drawn by lot, the parties involved could have asked for her name to be excluded from the draw. They had plenty of time to do so, from the moment the suspects were arraigned on February 24, she says.
The magistrate says doing so could have avoided delays, which are important when strict time limits are in play.
Lia notes the various grounds on which a magistrate must recuse themselves. If none of those apply, then the decision is at the magistrate’s discretion.
She says that parte civile lawyers based their recusal request on a previous decree she gave. But the fact that she based herself on that reason then, does not mean that she must do likewise now.
Parte civile lawyers have said that they do not doubt the impartiality of the court, the magistrate notes.
She notes how she had herself raised issues in the cases against Paul Bailey and Daniel Muka [Lia had recused herself from those two, separate, cases].
Magistrate returns to court
12.49pm More people are filing into the courtroom, including Caruana Galizia's sisters and the family's lawyers, Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia.
Adrian and Robert Agius lean over the wooden railings of the dock to have a word with their lawyers, seated in front. Lawyer William Cuschieri stands up and moves to his client George Degiorgio’s side. They speak privately.
Magistrate Nadine Lia returns to the courtroom.
Suspects return to courtroom
12.43pm Armed guards reenter the courtroom through a back door, and the men facing charges - Agius brothers Robert and Adrian, and George Degiorgio - are brought back into court. The brothers sit together, with a guard separating them from Degiorgio.
A fourth man facing charges, Jamie Vella, is missing as he is in COVID-19 quarantine.
We may be getting closer to a decision by magistrate Lia.
While you wait...
12.40pm ...you may want to follow public health chief Charmaine Gauci's weekly COVID-19 update. It's another day of high case numbers, with 283 new infections recorded.
Chief Justice orders suspension of all non-urgent cases
12.34pm Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti this morning instructed all magistrates and judges to defer any non-urgent court cases to after April 11.
"I believe we must help stop the spread and protect not only court workers but also those who must attend court," the chief justice said in a directive.
The Chamber of Advocates has taken note of the instruction and urged its members to cooperate with it and request deferrals of any non-urgent sittings.
You can read the chamber's reaction here.
Waiting in hall 22
12.18pm Proceedings in the case against men accused of supplying the Caruana Galizia bomb and of murdering Carmel Chircop are still suspended.
Lawyer George Camilleri from the attorney general's office is in court, as is inspector Wayne Camilleri. So too is the defence counsel for the men in the dock - that's lawyers Alfred Abela, Rene Darmanin and William Cuschieri.
Superintendent Keith Arnaud, who has also been waiting for the magistrate's decision, has just popped out of the courtroom.
Michael Cassar to testify in private
12.08pm Former police commissioner Michael Cassar has been called in as a witness in the public inquiry. But we won’t know what he has to say – the board of inquiry orders that his testimony take place behind closed doors.
Cassar quit as commissioner in April 2016, citing health reasons. He has already testified in the inquiry before, in January 2020.
Inquiry not over yet
12pm Gaerty is done testifying, but there may yet be other witnesses appearing before the inquiry today.
We are also waiting for word from a courtroom down the hall, where magistrate Nadine Lia is expected to decide whether or not to recuse herself from hearing the case against suspected bomb suppliers.
Tax department given one week to gather information
11.53am The board now turns to the list of companies and individuals which Gaerty has been asked to testify about.
They agree to whittle down the list to the most important characters and companies relevant to the inquiry.
The tax department is given an additional week to gather the information.
Gaerty will continue testifying on Friday, March 12.
Registering foreign-owned companies 'should be obligatory'
11.46am Gaerty highlights another lacuna. Just as people have to register a foreign trust, it should also be obligatory to register foreign-owned companies, he says, adding that he has been saying this "for a very long time."
Questioned about the introduction of unexplained wealth orders, Gaerty agrees that such laws are important.
He goes a step further, saying having laws in place was not enough, as
enforcement was needed.
Gaerty says his department’s mentality was always to “educate” the business community when it came to tax matters.
'Tax amnesties should be stopped'
11.42am Gaerty is asked by lawyer Jason Azzopardi (who has moved over to this courtroom as proceedings in hall 22 remain halted) to identify the limitations faced by the authorities.
Gaerty replies by saying tax amnesties should be halted, as they create the expectation that one can get away with tax evasion by applying for an amnesty.
“These registration schemes [tax amnesties] were administered by the Central Bank. How can this be? How can the tax department not be given this information?”, Gaerty says.
The witness argues that someone who has already qualified for one tax amnesty should automatically be disqualified from receiving another one.
Does the tax department give the FIAU information?
11.37am Comodini Cachia asks whether authorities like the FIAU and tax department exchange information.
Gaerty admits there are certain hurdles to that, such as him needing the prime minister’s approval to share certain information.
“You mean the police could be investigating corruption, and you had no obligation to give it [information] to them?”, the lawyer challenges.
“God forbid,” Gaerty replies.
He says other entities knew the tax authorities were investigating, so could ask for the information they needed.
Gaerty says he would not necessarily know which cases and requests for information are being handled by DG Compliance, which falls under his remit.
What became of investigations?
11.32am Judge Mallia wants to know what became of these investigations.
Gaerty: Investigations into different companies could be at different stages of completion. Other authorities, such as the FIAU, have many more powers when it comes to obtaining certain information about companies.
Gaerty says we are in a sensitive transition period, where tax offences are shifting from being an administrative matter handled by the tax department, to criminal ones led by the police.
Panama Papers investigated, Gaerty says
11.23am Comodini Cachia asks: if a person must declare income from a foreign-owned company to the tax department, could the department end up with company ownership information that the police do not have?
"It could be," Gaerty concedes.
Gaerty says his department’s focus would be on tax evasion.
“I asked for everything to be investigated, even the Panama Papers”.
Asked if the investigations were actually carried out, the tax commissioner assures this was the case.
Gaerty says one of the obstacles faced is a lack of cooperation by foreign jurisdictions.
“What interests us is that the tax compliance unit investigated,” judge Michael Mallia says.
17 Black questions
11.19am Gaerty is now facing questions about 17 Black. The board tells him there were very specific accusations about the company in the public domain.
The tax commissioner insists he always acted within the parameters of the law.
“I never went to eat with Yorgen Fenech,” he repeats.
“We are not interested. We are interested in the procedures of the tax
department,” the board tells the witness.
Comodini Cachia now asks what the procedure is for declaring income in a foreign-owned company.
Gaerty confirms that if a declaration is made, the person in question would have to confirm his ownership of the company.
Gaerty says he ‘made a mistake’
11.09am The board continues to challenge Gaerty about his familiarity with Fenech.
“Maybe I went out of line,” the tax commissioner says.
Asked point-blank if such familiarity is normal, Gaerty again says: “I made a mistake”.
Fenech’s lawyer Charles Mercieca is looking increasingly animated. He’s having several hushed conversations with the state advocate.
Gaerty: 'I am a friendly person'
11.05am Gaerty’s lawyers ask for the sitting to be continued behind closed doors.
“Why, what are you hiding,” one of the Caruana Galizia family members shouts out.
His testimony continues.
Comodini Cachia asks Gaerty about his proximity to business people.
“I never accepted any gifts from Yorgen Fenech. I never went to eat with Yorgen Fenech. I am a friendly person”.
Gaerty says that when he and Fenech exchanged the messages, he [Gaerty] was going through a lot, having just lost his father. He said he was speaking with the owner of one of the biggest companies in Malta.
Comodini Cachia challenges Gaerty about the familiarity between the pair in the messages exchanged.
'Fenech offered me a job'
10.59am Gaerty reveals that Yorgen Fenech had even offered him a job at some stage. The tax commissioner said he never took him up on the offer. If he wanted to work in the private sector he would have done so long ago, he says.
Gaerty goes on to say that he had helped Caruana Galizia with her own tax problems, saying it was normal for him to help people with their tax issues.
The board points out that he seems to have no problems speaking about Caruana Galizia’s taxes, so he should not have any problems speaking about the requested information.
'No problem brother'
10.56am Back to the public inquiry, where Gaerty is testifying.
The tax chief is confronted about a message Yorgen Fenech sent him.
It refers to a “witch” and to paying taxes on a company later mentioned by Caruana Galizia - a likely reference to 17 Black, the company owned by Fenech.
“What did you understand by the reference to a witch?” Gaerty is asked.
“I did not understand anything,” he replies.
“You replied: No problem brother,” Comodini Cachia says.
Magistrate Lia deliberates
10.53am Meanwhile, proceedings in hall 22 against the men accused of murdering lawyer Carmel Chircop and supplying the bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia are still at a standstill.
Magistrate Nadine Lia has been asked (by the Caruana Galizia family) to recuse herself.
Lia has already recused herself in the past in previous cases concerning Caruana Galizia. But this case is especially complicated as it also involves a separate crime – the murder of Carmel Chircop. That may be complicating her deliberations.
Gaerty has asked PM for permission to testify
10.50am Judge Michael Mallia asks whether there were investigations into the companies mentioned by Daphne Caruana Galizia on her blog.
“I am asking about Egrant. About Hearnville. About these companies,” Mallia states.
Gaerty says that in general terms, when companies and leaks like the Panama Papers are mentioned, no stone is left unturned and investigations opened. He however says he cannot comment on specifics.
The tax chief says the entire list of companies presented by the Caruana Galizia family’s lawyers has been sent to the prime minister, for him to approve and allow Gaerty to be able to testify about them.
State advocate angered
10.42am Gaerty says the law is very strict when it comes to tax secrecy. He tells the court that he has asked the state advocate for his assurances that he will not face legal action if he testifies.
The state advocate, Chris Soler, interjects, somewhat angrily.
"He should read out what my advice is."
10.39am Gaerty has finally taken to the witness stand.
He says that while he respects the court’s authority, it is important that all authorities abide by the law.
The request for such tax information is an extraordinary one, he says, and the law is clear in this regard: in order to reveal certain information, the prime minister needs to authorise it.
State advocate disagrees with tax department lawyers
10.32am Tax department lawyers are arguing that Gaerty is exempt from testifying. State advocate Chris Soler disagrees.
Tax department lawyer Vincienne Vella tells the inquiry that Gaerty has not received an exemption from the Prime Minister to testify about tax matters.
Soler interjects, saying the board has a right to summon Gaerty and order him to testify. The board says it agrees with that position.
Gaerty is standing in the corner, shaking his head as the lawyers continue to argue.
Update from the public inquiry
10.22am Let’s take a look at proceedings in the public inquiry, where our journalist Jacob Borg is following proceedings.
Marvin Gaerty is waiting outside hall 20, as lawyers inside argue over the relevance of his (eventual) testimony.
Comodini Cachia is arguing that the scope is to show the impunity when it came to things like the Panama Papers, which Caruana Galizia was working on.
Comodini Cachia says it would help the inquiry to know if the people mentioned in the Panama Papers paid tax, as these people always claimed they had done nothing wrong, and had declared their assets.
The inquiry has been tasked with seeing whether there were state failures leading to Caruana Galizia's death. It is important for it to know when Gaerty had learnt about 17 Black, and if he had a relationship with its owner [Yorgen Fenech], Comodini Cachia says.
10.15am It’s worth noting that the Chircop family has chosen not to be represented in these proceedings – there is no lawyer speaking on their behalf today.
Reminder: Three of the men in the dock in this courtroom face charges related to Chircop’s murder. Adrian Agius is accused of having ordered the lawyer’s assassination, with Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio accused of having carried out the crime. Vince Muscat has received a pardon for his role in the murder.
Division of labour
10.10am With two courtrooms holding sessions concerning Caruana Galizia at the same time, the family's lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia and Jason Azzopardi have had to split their workload.
Comodini Cachia heads to hall 20 to represent the family in proceedings there, while Azzopardi remains in hall 22 to follow the compilation of evidence against the alleged bomb suppliers.
What's happening in hall 20?
10.05am Proceedings in hall 22 are currently suspended as magistrate Nadine Lia decides on the request filed for her to recuse herself from that case.
A few doors down, inside hall 20, the Caruana Galizia public inquiry is in session, to hear testimony from Inland Revenue Commissioner Marvin Gaerty.
Gaerty was interrogated by police in December, with investigators asking questions about conversations the tax chief had with murder suspect Yorgen Fenech. Gaerty was told last month that he was no longer on police bail.
9.50am The magistrate suspends the sitting until she reaches her decision and prepares her decree.
The Agius brothers are led out. Two women at the back, stand up, blowing kisses at the accused.
Caruana Galizia's sister passes a remark at the family members.
Degiorgio lawyer objects
9.40am Lawyer Cuschieri, appearing for Degiorgio, objects to the request for recusal. All charges regarding his client are all related to the Chircop murder and so the issues raised by the parte civile lawyers have nothing to do with the case.
He says that where it comes to Caruana Galizia's murder, Degiorgio is already facing criminal prosecution before the Magistrates’ Court and Criminal Court.
He also says that parte civile have no right to choose the magistrate to preside over his case.
Request for recusal
9.30am Parte civile lawyer Jason Azzopardi says he has a request for Magistrate Nadine Lia to recuse herself from the case.
He says this is being asked not in any way reflecting on the personal integrity of the magistrate but in line with decree delivered by the same magistrate on the Yorgen Fenech case. That day, the magistrate had upheld request for recusal by same parte civile.
Background: Lia's father-in-law Pawlu Lia is the personal lawyer of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, among other government officials. The magistrate has twice been asked to recuse herself from cases related to the Caruana Galizia assassination. She was initially assigned to the case against businessman Yorgen Fenech and then in connection with the inquiry into middleman Melvin Theuma's phantom government job.
Azzopardi adds that the request for recusal was also based on the reasoning leading to the recusal of the inquiring magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera in October 2017, when she refrained from handling the Caruana Galizia murder inquiry.
Magistrate Marse-Anne Farrugia also recused herself from hearing the compilation of evidence against the four men since she was involved in the magisterial inquiry into Chircop’s murder.
Meanwhile, lawyer William Cuschieri enters the courtroom and apologises right away. He says he was under the impression the sitting was due to start at 9.30am.
Jamie Vella in quarantine
9.20am There are eight guards inside the courtroom. Superintendent Keith Arnaud enters the room.
Daphne Caruana Galizia's husband and sisters are present.
The court is informed that Jamie Vella is not present because he is in mandatory COVID-19 quarantine.
There seems to be nobody, so far, representing Carmel Chircop's family.
Suspects escorted in
9.05am George Degiorgio is the first to be escorted into the courtroom. He is soon followed by the Agius brothers. There is no sign of Jamie Vella yet.
Magistrate takes her seat. We are still waiting for the prosecution to show up.
8.50am Welcome to our live blog. Friday's court action will be focused on the second floor. Hall 20 and 22 will host the compilation of evidence against the four suspects as well as the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry, which resumes today.
Armed guards are inspecting the area.
Alfred Abela and Rene Darmanin are assisting the Agius brothers and Jamie Vella.