Investigators filed a request to tap the phone of one of three men accused of killing journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia eight months before she was assassinated, a court heard on Wednesday.
Police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar told a court that he had passed on the request to intercept phone calls of George Degiorgio on February 20, 2017 – the same day it landed on his desk.
Phone tapping is done by the Malta Security Services and can only occur when backed by a warrant signed by the Prime Minister or Justice Minister.
Mr Degiorgio is one of three men who stand accused of planting and detonating the bomb that killed Ms Caruana Galizia on October 16, 2017.
Investigators wanted to tap his phone in connection with other suspected crimes, which were not mentioned in court on Wednesday.
Mr Degiorgio is challenging the validity of phone tapping laws and has filed a constitutional case to that effect. On Wednesday, the court heard from commissioner Cutajar, inspector Keith Arnaud and MSS chief Joseph Bugeja, who testified behind closed doors.
How investigators used phone intercepts
Inspector Arnaud, who is leading the Caruana Galizia murder case, told the court that phone intercepts had served as “intelligence” to better understand the main body of evidence which provided the basis of the prosecution’s case.
All cell tower data had been analysed by the FBI as well as the Maltese investigators, said Inspector Arnaud.
He said the FBI had proved crucial in identifying five mobile phone numbers, two directly linked to the device that had set off the car bomb and three others later discovered to be ghost phones, allegedly used by the suspects to bypass possible tapping of their personal phones.
George Degiorgio had made a call from his personal phone on the day of the explosion, the inspector said. That call, when taken against the general body of evidence, had led investigators to suspect that the request for a top-up was not for his own phone but for another, Arnaud explained.
However, that call alone, intercepted by the Malta Security Services, would not have sufficed.
“The call ‘buy me a top-up’ alone meant nothing. If the top-up was actually bought and inputted, that’s another thing. That latter evidence was supplied by Vodafone. We did not need the intercept,” explained Arnaud.
“How could you get to the top-up message without the intercept?” asked lawyer William Cuschieri.
Arnaud explained that there had been two routes, namely, the intercepts and an analysis of the suspects’ call profile.
Call profiles had revealed the number of the third party contacted by George Degiorgio shortly before the explosion, making him a person of interest, said Arnaud. That person had later confirmed Mr Degiorgio’s message.
The intercepts had also confirmed that one of the ghost phones had moved in line with one of the numbers linked to the explosive device, went on Arnaud, pointing out that the Degiorgios had been under police suspicion in relation to other similar crimes.
“Did you confirm whether the MSS had a warrant for the intercepts?” asked Dr Cuschieri.
Arnaud explained that “it was not his duty to do so” but confirmed that he had forwarded a report to the police commissioner on February 20, 2017 asking him to request MSS to help monitor Degiorgio in relation to other cases.
“Did you ever see the warrant?” pressed on Dr Cuschieri.
“No, I did not” came the reply.
Video of interrogation presented in court
During Wednesday’s hearing, the inspector presented a CD containing a recording of George Degiorgio’s interrogation, during which the intercepted call had allegedly been played out.
The court, presided over by Mr Justice Toni Abela, declared that the CD would be placed in a sealed envelope to be accessible only to the parties who were to ensure that no part thereof was to be made public.
That CD had not been presented during the compilation of evidence against Mr Degiorgio, his brother Alfred and Vincent Muscat, but the call could be heard in the recording of the interrogation, explained Arnaud.
“What was his [George Degiorgio’s] reaction when you played out that call?” asked Judge Abela.
“No reaction. He answered no question all throughout the interrogation.”
“Was there any analysis to confirm that it was George Degiorgio’s voice?” asked Dr Cuschieri.
“We know George Degiorgio’s voice. We immediately recognised it. I know his voice well,” said the Inspector.
As for the message allegedly sent to his partner after the explosion, telling her “buy me wine,” Arnaud said that he “had associated it with some form of celebration.” That and the reference to “I caught two fish” had been taken to be associated with the assassination, explained Arnaud.
Lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia and Peter Caruana Galizia appeared on behalf of the victim’s family. Lawyers Victoria Buttigieg and Maurizio Cordina appeared for the Attorney General. Lawyer William Cuschieri assisted Mr Degiorgio.