Education Minister Owen Bonnici testified before the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry on Friday.
Bonnici has often clashed with activists during his term as justice minister, especially when the makeshift memorial to Caruana Galizia was regularly cleared of tributes. Last January, the minister had been found guilty of breaching the freedom of expression of activists over the persistent dismantling of the Valletta memorial.
The inquiry is intended to establish whether the government could have prevented the assassination of the former journalist in October 2017.
Bonnici's main points from Friday's testimony:
- Muscat took decision alone to grant Theuma a pardon;
- Was not aware of Keith Schembri's friendship with Yorgen Fenech;
- Insists former prime minister wanted to resolve murder 'at all costs';
- Describes Konrad Mizzi as 'naive' for opening an overseas trust;
- Makeshift memorial was repeatedly cleared to avoid 'trouble';
- Keith Scembri introduce him to Christian Kalin of Henley & Partners;
- Says Caruana Galizia's 'hateful' posts compromised her good investigative work.
Behind closed doors
12.15pm The board says it will take a brief break and then the testimony will continue behind close doors.
The board says it needs time to meet in private to take stock of the inquiry so far and map the way forward.
The next sitting is on September 30.
Thank you for following this live blog. We'll bring you the highlights shortly.
One pardon, not two
12.10pm Minister says he wants to refer to testimony by criminal lawyer Arthur Azzopardi who had said that Bonnici had told him the government could only give one pardon in connection with Caruana Galizia's murder.
"I want to clarify that Azzopardi (once il-Koħħu's lawyer) had asked the prime minister for a meeting. I happened to see Arthur at a funeral at Marsaxlokk. So I seized the opportunity to ask him what he wanted to speak about. He told me it was about the pardon.
"My view was that it was not on to grant two pardons to solve a crime. Pardoning one to get to the other. That was all. I wanted to clarify this because it was mentioned in the media."
Monument was cleared to 'avoid trouble'
12.05pm Comodini Cachia quotes from a judgment in connection with the Caruana Galizia memorial after it was repeatedly cleared of tributes under his specific instructions.
The decision was a collegial one discussed as a government, Bonnici was later reported as saying.
Comodini Cachia wants to know who took that decision.
Bonnici says that for the first year he had ordered the memorial not to be touched. Then there were scuffles near the memorial and an elderly man once ended up in hospital.
So I decided to solve the situation and avoid further trouble. Photos and so on would be allowed during the day and then cleared at night.
"I was trying to do my utmost to prevent trouble. Besides, it’s a historic monument by Antonio Sciortino. In fact, the court imposed limitations on the memorial."
Relationship with Nexia BT
11.55am Bonnici says he had contracted Nexia BT to do government work, specifically a consultancy job on EU funds.
"We had a right to appoint four consultants. I chose Nexia BT. He (Brian Tonna) worked from his own office, I did not even have space in my office."
Asked why he decided to retain him despite the Panama Papers revelations, he replies: "There were respectable professionals who set up trusts for Maltese persons. At that stage I changed his consultancy to part-time. After the election I decided to terminate the consultancy... The company was not blacklisted, as far as I know."
Comodini Cachia points out that Nexia BT got some €4.2 million in direct orders.
No knowledge of Fenech
11.50am Judge Said Pullicino asks Bonnici when did he sense that the prime minister knew that his office was possibly involved in the crime.
Bonnici: "Until the very day of Keith Schembri's arrest, I had no idea. I’m still not sure if certain statements are true."
Board: "How did the prime minister change after murder?"
Bonnici: "He wanted to solve it at all costs. As for Keith Schembri, I personally saw him strive to do so. I had no idea of his friendship with Yorgen Fenech. I was not invited to Girgenti (birthday party). I didn't even know of Fenech's existence.
"In truth, I was once at a foreign airport in this legislature and Yorgen Fenech came up to me and introduced himself as Yorgen ta’ Tumas."
Muscat took decision alone
11.45am Questioning turns on the murder probe briefings.
"I was present mostly for (Vince Muscat) il-Koħħu’s pardon. Keith Schembri was present, he was acting normally."
Board: "What about Melvin Theuma’s pardon?"
Bonnici: "He (Muscat) took the decision alone. I offered my help but he said no. He wanted to shoulder it alone.
"I made a conscious effort to remain focused on the magisterial inquiries. As for police matters, I trusted the home affairs minister. I felt that things were moving. Arnaud was well prepared - he used to impress me."
Judge Mallia tells the minister that today we know that three of the murder suspects were tipped off about the upcoming raids and that information of security briefings were being leaked. Did he tip them off?
"Certainly not. I used to be present at the meetings. It was concerning for me too."
After Daphne's murder
11.35am Bonnici says Caruana Galizia's assassination was the worst thing that could have happened.
"We were all shocked. I immediately thought that our lives would change. This was no road accident! The prime minister had summoned me urgently to tackle the first obstacle as the family had objected to Consuelo Scerri Herrera as magistrate.
Judge Said Pullicino wants to know about the general atmosphere in cabinet after the murder.
"The prime minister was firm. He wanted to solve the murder at all costs. We put forward the offer of a reward."
Was Keith Schembri present?
"Yes he was at cabinet. But when the prime spoke to me personally, for example about the reward, it was just us two. When the prime minister told me about FBI assistance I think Keith Schembri was there and he was in agreement."
A smoking gun
11.25am Bonnici says he only saw Brian Tonna of Nexia BT once in seven years. It was common knowledge that he was offering services to Schembri and Mizzi.
"Why was there no reaction to this smoking gun," the board points out.
Bonnici: "The smoking gun emerged months after the trusts were set up and the Panama Papers emerged. The prime minister spoke individually to all MPs. The consequences were that Konrad Mizzi was removed as deputy."
Judge Mallia points out that Mizzi still retained control of government projects.
Bonnici says there are politically exposed persons on both sides of the house who have trusts in Panama.
He insists that decisions were taken. Mizzi was removed as deputy leader of the Labour Party, he was stripped of his portfolio and ultimately Joseph Muscat resigned as prime minister.
'Naive' Konrad Mizzi
11.15am The board now zeroes in on the Panama Papers, which sparked international outcry and a major scandal. What was the minister's reaction?
He said opening a trust in Malta's jurisdiction is all well and good but an overseas on is not, and sends the wrong message.
"It was very naive for a minister to have such a trust. I had gone to Konrad Mizzi and told him 'what were you thinking.' He should have used other avenues for family affairs. How naive of him."
Keith Schembri was a different kettle of fish.
"He is a businessman. Whether businessman should hold such office is a different matter."
When the allegations emerged, Bonnici said he was comforted by the knowledge of ongoing magisterial inquires.
"And the sooner they are concluded the better so that people will know."
'Not my style'
11am Bonnici insists he did not overstep any line when he wrote a couple of lines against hate blogging.
"And no, I don’t think I created any atmosphere against journalists. I introduce laws to protect journalists."
Comodini Cachia presses on: "So you say that your tweets did not stoke the hate atmosphere?"
Bonnici reiterated that he doesn't think a couple of lines fuelled hate.
As for Glenn Bedingfield I had said that I did not like that style. Though his style was no comparison to what Daphne wrote about people. But I didn’t like the style either way."
Comodini Cachia reads out a blog post from Caruana Galizia in which she denied she had written the reference to "hanging upside down like Mussolini".
Asked whether he was aware of her rebuttal, he replies: "I had work to do and could not spend the morning checking blogs. But I had personally seen that post by Caruana Galizia."
A hate blogger?
10.45am Comodini Cachia asks the minister how he could justify his tweets when he called Caruana Galizia a "hate blogger".
Bonnici says many had referred to the hateful comments being expressed online, citing even a speech by the Archbishop about the use of blogs to instigate hate.
He says he recalls the blog post Caruana Galizia had uploaded when Dom Mintoff had died, when she wrote “may you rot in hell”.
"That style I don’t like. I could not understand those comments which compromised the good investigative work she did."
She also once wrote that Bonnici should be "hanged like Mussolini".
"Why did she use such style together with her good work? I cannot understand it until this very day."
10.28am Comodini Cachia asks about the "roadshows" by Henley and Partners and asks why they chose Joseph Muscat to promote them.
Bonnici: "It’s no roadshow. They are conferences to promote the scheme. I attended one in London and it was most interesting.
"I was a guest speaker about citizenship. No questions were asked. It was a sort of seminar. That’s what I can say about the one I attended. Professors and experts attended. It was most interesting from a legal point of view. Jonathan Cardona and Kalin were there too."
Comodini Cachia presses on. In the week of Caruana Galizia's assassination, Muscat was in Dubai promoting the passport scheme.
Was it a project like all others?
Bonnici: "Dr Muscat followed everything closely, noted deadlines and so on. That was his style of leadership. He wanted results and that’s it!"
'I chose to ignore Daphne'
10.20am Bonnici says that although Caruana Galizia regularly criticised him, he never took any action against her.
"I chose to ignore her blog. That was my choice and that’s how it remained."
No support for SLAPP
10.10am Bonnici insists he did not plot with anyone to take legal action.
"I advised him to send a judicial letter. I was a practising lawyer and that’s how things are done. We have democratic systems here. He had told me they wanted to file actions outside Malta - SLAPP."
Bonnici points out that he personally never filed a libel suit against any journalist.
"The only libel I had filed was against a media outlet (Net News) and the action was withdrawn."
Judge Abigail Lofaro asks the minister how he reacted after receiving an email threatening to take drastic action against a journalist.
"I did not support them directly or indirectly. I wanted to distance myself from the issue. My position was clear. I was criticised a lot about this."
Threat to sue
10.05am At one point Kalin drew attention to Caruana Galizia's continuous articles which he felt were tarnishing and undermining his reputation and the company was considering legal action.
Bonnici says he made it clear that there were legal remedies in Malta. But in Malta such actions would normally be preceded by a judicial letter to try to settle the issue amicably.
At this point, the minister stops to make a point: "I have no email no firstname.lastname@example.org" email, as was reported in some quarters.
Relationship with Henley & Partners
9.55am Bonnici is asked about his relationship with Christian Kalin from Henley & Partners, which specialises in the citizenship scheme.
He says Kalin was introduced by former chief of staff Keith Schembri and he was handed a brief. It was the Attorney General's office which wrote the draft legislation to set up the scheme.
He says that as far as he could tell, Henley and Partners did not have a say in the legislation but insists he didn’t draft the law.
"May I also add I had a rather particular relationship with Kalin. He is very reserved and very cold, not easy to talk to, difficult to set up friendship, he keeps everything within professional boundaries."
Bonnici reminds the board that at the time he served as parliamentary secretary under then Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia.
Taking note of Bedingfield
9.45am The board says its attention has been drawn to a Facebook post by Labour whip and MP Glenn Bedingfield.
Bedingfield this week lashed out at the public inquiry saying it had become politicised and that the process is marred by intentions that go beyond the truth of the facts of the murder itself.
The board orders a copy of the post and comments be placed in the records of inquiry as evidence and to be immediately inserted after the testimony of deputy prime minister Chris Fearne.
Off we go
9.40am Parte civile lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia and Jason Azzopardi are in the court room. Peter Caruana Galizia and the victim's sisters are also present.
Bonnici takes the witness stand as the three judges - retired judge Michael Mallia, former chief justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro - take their place.
Bonnici's testimony comes two days after deputy prime minister Chris Fearne said former prime minister Joseph Muscat had refused to discuss sacking his chief of staff Keith Schembri with his ministers.
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