Over the last month, readers have been transfixed as a succession of Mafia look-alikes straight out of central casting – shaven heads, designer-stubble beards, eyes hidden behind dark designer sunglasses – succeeded one another into court.
An extraordinary juxtaposition of judicial planning – where testimony presented in the compilation of evidence before a magistrate against murder suspect Yorgen Fenech (the alleged mastermind behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination in 2017) has coincided with revelations to a public inquiry held before three judges into the circumstances surrounding her murder, due to report by September – has led to breathtaking revelations of double-dealing, corruption and betrayal worthy of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
Malta’s system of justice faces a tangled web. The scandal surrounding the assassination has reached the highest level of government, also dragging in former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
The alleged mastermind behind the murder, Fenech, his middleman-turned-state-evidence-witness, Melvin Theuma, and sundry police sources have implicated in the plot the former prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri – a long-time close friend of Fenech.
Theuma, the go-between with the killers, has linked Schembri and Fenech to the murder. Schembri’s own evidence has raised questions about former prime minister Muscat’s involvement in the whole affair. Two former ministers in Muscat’s government, Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi, have also been sucked into the maelstrom.
A cast of characters, including an error-prone former police commissioner, Lawrence Cutajar, bent or incompetent serving or retired police officers friendly to Fenech, and go-betweens with the mastermind, including his doctor, are waiting in the wings to give evidence. Not forgetting three hoodlums, allegedly the perpetrators of the murder.
In the fevered witch-hunt that has gripped commentators, it is worth remembering that all are innocent until proven guilty.
What does it tell us about Malta’s long-standing institutional corruption? It is rare to find an area of Maltese public life untarnished by corruption. It appears to permeate every aspect of society in a spectrum from nepotism to law-breaking. Swindling the state and corruption are a way of life which seep into every pore.
Reviewing the events of 2019, the Ombudsman excoriated Muscat’s government for fostering “the arrogant, obsessive and dangerous culture of impunity” enjoyed by those with the right connections to government.
For the first time in decades, the cancer of corruption is being ruthlessly cut out- Martin Scicluna
His focus was on 2019. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we need to go back to 2013 to see where the six years began which culminated with Muscat’s resignation. That year, the Nationalist government was brought down by ‘Oilgate’, a scandal involving several million euros of taxpayers’ money. The former Enemalta chairman and several others were charged with money-laundering and corruption, but to this day have still not faced justice.
Corruption was rife under previous Nationalist governments and became endemic for six years under Muscat. Following his first landslide victory – and, yes, as a dispassionate observer, I did urge a vote for Labour in 2013 – the new government set about the wholesale capture of all the key institutions and levers of government.
Subsequent revelations in the Panama papers, proving that Mizzi and Schembri opened a secret trust in New Zealand soon after the party came to power, marked only the start of a trail of maladministration and misgovernment the likes of which has not been witnessed before in Malta’s corrupt past. Just as ‘Oilgate’ brought down the Nationalist government in 2013, ‘Panamagate’ presaged the end of Muscat’s administration six years later.
His inaction then led to a succession of scandals which have undermined Malta’s international reputation, tarnished his administration and tainted the many achievements of his premiership. It culminated four years later with the barbaric and brutal assassination of an investigative journalist and his resignation in disgrace seven months ago.
In January, a new leader of the Labour Party became Malta’s new prime minister. Robert Abela had been a member of parliament for just 30 months with limited experience of the hurly-burly of Maltese politics. His only government experience was as legal consultant to his predecessor, not as a policymaker steeped in the dark political arts.
Abela made a remarkable start to his premiership. A few weeks after taking office, he was confronted by the grim, unknown policy challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, a test which has laid low presidents and prime ministers around the world.
Abela – advised by excellent health experts – made confident and sure-footed political decisions enabling Malta to come through the initial stages of the emergency largely unscathed.
But the real achievement of his leadership has been his decisive handling of the fallout from the corruption mess he inherited and his display of moral courage – a unique quality in Maltese politics. Within days of his appointment as prime minister, he sought and obtained the resignation of the Minister for Gozo because her husband (former deputy commissioner Silvio Valletta) had been closely associated with Fenech.
He summarily dismissed the Commissioner of Police, Lawrence Cutajar, and set in train an independent selection process for a new commissioner (whose first action on arrival was to remove the head of the economic crimes unit). Abela has also since sacked Cardona as deputy leader of the party and expelled Mizzi from PL, both of whom are embroiled in the corruption saga.
Under Abela’s short tenure as prime minister, Malta has experienced a transformation: governance has undergone a metamorphosis. His administration is as different from that which preceded it as chalk from cheese. For the first time in decades, the cancer of corruption is being ruthlessly cut out. Trust in government is being restored.
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